The big human battle of this century is going to be the democratisation of data and all forms of knowledge, and the introduction of digital government with the help of free and open source software
Whilst undoubtedly the reaction of the planet to the explosion of human activities with climate change and other symptoms is the largest change process that has ever occurred in human history in the physical realm, the exponential growth of the Internet of Things and digital information flows is triggering the largest change process in the realm of human organisation that societies have ever experienced.
The digital realm
Sensor networks and pervasive use of RFID tags are generating a flood of data and lively machine-to-machine chatter. Machines have replaced humans as the most social species on the planet, and this must inform the approach to the development of healthy economic ecosystems.
Sensors that are part of the Internet of Things
When data scientists and automation engineers collaborate with human domain experts in various disciplines, machine-generated data is the magic ingredient for solving the hardest automation problems.
- In domains such as manufacturing and logistics the writing is on the wall. Introduction of self-driving vehicles and just a few more robots on the shop floor will eliminate the human element in the social chatter at the workplace within the next 10 years.
- The medical field is being revolutionised by the downward spiral of the cost of genetic analysis, and by the development of medical robots and medical devices that are hooked up to the Internet, paving the way for machine learning algorithms and big data to replace many of the interactions with human medical professionals.
- The road ahead for the provision of government services is clearly digital. It is conceivable that established bureaucracies can resist the trend to digitisation for a few years, but any delay will not prevent the inevitability of automation.
The social implications
Data driven automation leads to an entirely new perspective on the purpose of the education system and on the role of work and employment in society.
Large global surveys show that more than 70% of employees are disengaged at work. It is mainly in manufacturing that automation directly replaces human labour. In many other fields the shift in responsibilities from humans to machines initially goes hand in hand with the invention of new roles and loss of a clear purpose.
Traditional work is being transformed into a job for a machine. Exceptions are few and far between.
Data that is not sufficiently accessible is only of very limited value to society. The most beneficial and disruptive data driven innovation are those that result from the creative combination of data sets from two or more different sources.
It is unrealistic to assume that the most creative minds can be found via the traditional channel of employment, and it is unrealistic that such minds can achieve the best results if data is locked up in organisation-specific or national silos.
The most valuable data is data that has been meticulously validated, and that is made available in the public domain. It is no coincidence that software, data, and innovation is increasingly produced in the public domain. Jeremy Rifkin describes the emergence of a third mode of commons-based digitally networked production that is distinct from the property- and contract-based modes of firms and markets.
The education system has a major role to play in creating data literate citizen-scientists-innovators.
The role of economics
It is worthwhile remembering the origin of the word economics. It used to denote the rules for good household management. On a planet that hosts life, household management occurs at all levels of scale, from the activities of single cells right up to processes that involve the entire planetary ecosystem. Human economics are part of a much bigger picture that always included biological economics and that now also includes economics in the digital realm.
To be able to reason about economics at a planetary level the planet needs a language for reasoning about economic ecosystems, only some of which may contain humans. Ideally such a language should be understandable by humans, but must also be capable of reaching beyond the scope of human socio-economic systems. In particular the language must not be coloured by any concrete human culture or economic ideology, and must be able to represent dependencies and feedback loops at all levels of scale, as well as feedback loops between levels of scale, to enable adequate representation of the fractal characteristic of nature.
The digital extension of the planetary nervous system
In biology the use of electrical impulses for communication is largely confined to communication within individual organisms, and communication between organisms is largely handled via electromagnetic waves (light, heat), pressure waves (sound), and chemicals (key-lock combinations of molecules).
The emergence of the Internet of Things is adding to the communication between human made devices, which in turn interact with the local biological environment via sensors and actuators. The impact of this development is hard to overestimate. The number of “tangible” things that might be computerized is approaching 200 billion, and this number does not include large sensor networks that are being rolled out by scientists in cities and in the natural environment. Scientists are talking about trillion-sensor networks within 10 years. The number of sensors in mobile devices is already more than 50 billion.
Compared to chemical communication channels between organisms, the speed of digital communication is orders of magnitude faster. The overall effect of equipping the planet with a ubiquitous digital nervous system is comparable to the evolution of animals with nervous systems and brains – it opens up completely new possibilities for household management at all levels of scale.
The complexity of the Internet of Things that is emerging on the horizon over the next decade is comparable to the complexity of the human brain, and the volume of data flows handled by the network is orders of magnitudes larger than anything a human brain is able to handle.
The global brain
Over the course of the last century, starting with the installation of the first telegraph lines, humans have embarked on the journey of equipping the planet with a digital electronic brain. To most human observers this effort has only become reasonably obvious with the rise of the Web over the last 20 years.
Human perception and human thought processes are strongly biased towards the time scales that matter to humans on a daily basis to the time scale of a human lifetime. Humans are largely blind to events and processes that occur in sub-second intervals and processes that are sufficiently slow. Similarly human perception is biased strongly towards living and physical entities that are comparable to the physical size of humans plus minus two orders of magnitude.
As a result of their cognitive limitations and biases, humans are challenged to understand non-human intelligences that operate in the natural world at different scales of time and different scales of size, such as ant colonies and the behaviour of networks of plants and microorganisms. Humans need to take several steps back in order to appreciate that intelligence may not only exist at human scales of size and time.
The extreme loss of biodiversity that characterises the anthropocene should be a warning, as it highlights the extent of human ignorance regarding the knowledge and intelligence that evolution has produced over a period of several billion years.
It is completely misleading to attempt to attach a price tag to the loss of biodiversity. Whole ecosystems are being lost – each such loss is the loss of a dynamic and resilient living system of accumulated local biological knowledge and wisdom.
Just like an individual human is a complex adaptive system, the planet as a whole is a complex adaptive system. All intelligent systems, whether biological or human created, contain representations of themselves, and they use these representations to generate goal directed behaviour. Examples of intelligent systems include not only individual organisms, but also large scale and long-lived entities such as native forests, ant colonies, and coral reefs. The reflexive representations of these systems are encoded primarily in living DNA.
From an external perspective it nearly seems as if the planetary biological brain, powerful – but thinking slowly in chemical and biological signals over thousands of years, has shaped the evolution of humans for the specific purpose of developing and deploying a faster thinking global digital brain.
It is delusional to think that humans are in control of what they are creating. The planet is in the process of teaching humans about their role in its development, and some humans are starting to respond to the feedback. Feedback loops across different levels of scale and time are hard for humans to identify and understand, but that does not mean that they do not exist.
The global digital brain is currently still in under development, not unlike the brain of a human baby before birth. All corners of the planet are being wired up and connected to sensors and actuators. The level of resilience of the overall network depends on the levels of decentralisation, redundancy, and variability within the network. A hierarchical structure of subsystems as envisaged by technologist Ray Kurzweil is influenced by elements of established economic ideology rather than by the resilient neural designs found in biology. A hierarchical global brain would likely suffer from recurring outages and from a lack of behavioural plasticity, not unlike the Cloud services from Microsoft and Amazon that define the current technological landscape.
The ideology of economic globalisation is dominated by simplistic and flawed assumptions. In particular the concepts of money and globally convertible currencies are no longer helpful and have become counter-productive. The limitations of the monetary system are best understood by examining the historic context in which money and currencies were invented, which predates the development of digital networks by several thousand years. At the time a simple and crude metric in the form of money was the best technology available to store information about economic flows.
As the number of humans has exploded, and as human societies have learned to harness energy in the form of fossil fuels to accelerate and automate manufacturing processes, the old monetary metrics have become less and less helpful as economic signals. In particular the impact of economic externalities that are ignored by the old metrics, both in the natural environment as well as in the human social sphere, is becoming increasingly obvious.
The global digital brain allows flows of energy, physical resources, and economic goods to be tracked in minute detail, without resorting to crude monetary metrics and assumptions of fungibility that open the door to suppressing inconvenient externalities.
A new form of global thinking is required that is not confined to the limited perspective of financial economics. The notions of fungibility and capital gains need to be replaced with the notions of collaborative economics and zero-waste cyles of economic flows.
Metrics are still required, but the new metrics must provide a direct and undistorted representation of flows of energy, physical resources, and economic goods. Such highly context specific metrics enable computational simulation and optimisation of zero-waste economics. Their role is similar to the role of chemical signalling substances used by biological organisms.
Global thinking requires the extension of a zero-waste approach to economics to the planetary level – leaving no room for any known externalities, and encouraging continuous monitoring to detect unknown externalities that may be affecting the planetary ecosystem.
The future of human economics
The real benefits of the global digital brain will be realised when massive amounts of machine generated data become accessible in the public domain in the form of disruptive innovation, and are used to solve complex optimisation problems in transportation networks, distributed generation and supply of power, healthcare, recycling of non-renewable resources, industrial automation, and agriculture.
Five years ago Tim O’Reilly predicted a war for control of the Web. The hype around big data has let many organisations forget that the Web and social media in particular is already saturated with explicit and implicit marketing messages, and that there is an upper bound to the available time (attention) and money for discretionary purchases. A growing list of organisations is fighting over a very limited amount of potential revenue, unable to see the bigger picture of global economics.
Over the next decade one of the biggest challenges will be the required shift in organisational culture, away from simplistic monetisation of big data, towards collaboration and extensive data and knowledge sharing across disciplines and organisational boundaries. The social implications of advanced automation across entire economic ecosystems, and a corresponding necessary shift in the education system need to be addressed.
The future of humans
Human capabilities and limitations are under the spot light. How long will it take for human minds to shift gears, away from the power politics and hierarchically organised societies that still reflect the cultural norms of our primate cousins, and from myopic human-centric economics, towards planetary economics that recognise the interconnectedness of life across space and time?
The future of democratic governance could be one where people vote for human understandable open source legislation that is directly executable by intelligent software systems. Corporate and government politicians will no longer be deemed as an essential part of human society. Instead, any concentration of power in human hands is likely to be recognised as an unacceptable risk to the welfare of society and the health of the planet.
Humans have to ask themselves whether they want to continue to be useful parts of the ecosystem of the planet or whether they prefer to take on the role of a genetic experiment that the planet switched on and off for a brief period in its development.