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  • Writer's pictureEdgar Chicurel H

Driven to Complexity

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

When it comes to shaping the future, are humans in the driver's seat? Were we ever? In this post I take a look at how technological advancement creates ever increasing complexity, and what the role of humans and AI's is in this seemingly unstoppable rush. Included are comments on the ideas of Yuval Harari, Manollis Kellis and others.

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The immense creative power of Evolution has brought vast diversity and complexity to our planet. In that diversity we find natural factories, organic machinery, specialized sensory detectors and strategic animal and plant behaviors which are inextricably linked to the ecosystems we observe.

And now, in the current chapter of the evolutionary story, vertebrates with the capability of replicating many of these abilities have arisen.

The story of humans and their achievements has become more and more interwoven with the story of technology. Our technological abilities have vastly improved over the last few hundred years, but intrinsically we probably have not become any smarter. That is to say, if we took a typical human from, say, ten thousand years ago as a baby and raised her in the present day she would probably be just as competent as any other typical person today. In fact, the size of our brains has actually decreased in the last few thousand years. Some speculate that our cognitive abilities have, as a consequence, diminished. How would a human baby of today fare if we sent her back in time those same 10,000 years? Maybe not so well.

But a human being today has powers and abilities that are obviously far superior to anything a human could do 10,000, or for that matter 1,000 years ago. We can fly from one continent to another, communicate instantly with others anywhere in the world, create and share images effortlessly; the list of course is a long one.

So Homo Sapiens is more or less the same primate from 10,000 years ago. But our tools have changed. In an interview on the Lex Fridman podcast, Manollis Kellis, head of the Computational Biology Group at MIT explained this in terms of human hardware and software. I think this is a compelling way of thinking about it. In terms of hardware, we are still the same model, but the code we have has improved dramatically. And this code is evolving very rapidly. Comparing ourselves to powerful computers with ever improving software, ramping up our abilities through constant upgrades then begs the question, who is the user? In other words, who or what is guiding this evolution? Is it our collective desires? Our governments? The forces of markets?

In his wonderfully inspiring book, Homo Deus, Yuval Harari examines things we currently consider desirable, and the goals we are aiming for. The present age, says Harari, is one in which humans are no longer overwhelmed by the concerns of getting sufficient food, waging endless wars, and surviving devastating plagues and infectious diseases. Although the book was written before the COVID 19 pandemic, I think the argument still holds true. The pandemic has created huge disruption, brutally impacting lives and economies, in a sense, taking us a step back toward the days when disease and hunger continually threatened much of the world’s population. However, although a scientific approach to defeating the virus was not embraced by all, it is becoming apparent that in a relatively short period of time, science will deliver the tools to keep this virus under control in the near future.

So, although 2020 may have been a year in which some long term goals were put on the backburner, we can still turn to Harari to take a look at the main objectives that humanity strives for in the present era. Increasing life expectancy as much as possible and achieving happiness are the drivers, says Harari. Now more than ever, Death is considered by many as the great enemy of humanity, and every attempt to protect and prolong life should be explored. This means fighting disease and hunger as well as understanding and rewiring the process of aging. It is interesting to consider this goal more carefully. Undoubtedly it is one of the few things that most of us can agree on as desirable. And there is much work being done to achieve this. Many scientists in government agencies as well as private companies are working toward this. Health care around the world involves millions of dedicated professionals. Protecting and prolonging life is in fact an undertaking that is being tackled collectively by a good chunk of human endeavor.

Then we come to the second goal, which is achieving happiness. This of course unfolds into many different activities. Everything that has to do with entertainment falls into this category, and that alone is huge. Think of such diverse efforts as providing a great dinner at a restaurant, developing a new online game, selling recreational marijuana, operating a sports event, manufacturing a sex toy, or producing a concert. Add to that the efforts in psychology to better understand our behavior and make life a happier experience.

I would add a third great endeavor to these two: advancing our technological capabilities. I think this is really a goal in itself and has become a driving force in our societies. Think of how much research and development is being done to develop new products or improve them by making them accomplish tasks in less time and with less effort. There is a relentless push to produce faster computer chips, new or improved home gadgets, time saving apps for all sorts of activities, faster transportation and more capable AI software.

After discussing the goals of living longer and achieving happiness, Harari ends the chapter called “The New Human Agenda” with a section on how humans are attempting to upgrade themselves into what he calls “The Gods of Planet Earth”. In a way, this is part of what our goal of technological advance is all about.

We are looking here at big picture, collective goals shared by most of the world. There are groups dedicated to spying, or fighting for a country or a cause, and the motivations are not one of the three mentioned before. And as individuals our motivations may be quite unrelated to these objectives. But if you look at the major coordinated groups of people, that is, the companies and organizations of the world, most are motivated by one of these three objectives, or, as in the case of energy sector or transportation companies, providing the infrastructure necessary for carrying out the activities of these companies and organizations. So, as a species, we are looking to live as long as possible, be as happy as possible, and expand and improve our technological capabilities as much as possible.

Obviously there are other ways to categorize our goals. Advancing technology could be included in the support activities category. For example, the achievements of a biotech or gaming company might depend on greater computer efficiency. Being healthy and having the prospect of living longer may be included under the goal of happiness. And science is motivated in some areas by pure understanding and not applying discoveries to technology. So, clearly, there is also a collective effort to gain better understanding of things. But no matter how you categorize the current goals of humanity, happiness, living longer and healthier, and achieving greater technological capabilities are three things our species mostly agrees on and is dedicating its greatest collective efforts to achieve. If these are our goals, where are they leading us? Improving health and prolonging life might lead to immortality. But when do we become as happy as we possibly can? And where does are advancing technology lead us to?

Let’s look at it from another perspective. One of the effects of the quest for these goals is technological evolution. While humanity strives to make a better mass multiplayer online game or MMO, computer code for enhancing real time interaction is perfected. The quest for greater technological capabilities led to Moore’s law and the exponential increase in computer chip processing power. The medical world is benefiting from, as well as driving, high level medical diagnosis software. These advances set the stage for the empowerment of AI: Artificial Intelligence. Although AI has been formally researched since 1955, it is only recently that its capabilities have exploded, branching out into many areas and becoming a household word as well as, in many cases, a household inhabitant, in the form of Siri or Alexa.

In the former podcast I mentioned that as humans we may look at the story of evolution as all the things that had to happen for self-aware, technologically capable human beings to appear on our planet. It is hard not to see ourselves as the main characters in the story. Galileo wrenched us, kicking and screaming, from the belief that we are at the center of the solar system. Evolution may land our ego another blow, discovering a higher fitness peak than the one we now occupy.

The very intricate story of evolution has produced increasing complexity. Although defining complexity is not trivial, the famous physicist and futurist, Michio Kaku, stated some years ago that the human brain is the most complex object in our known universe. So, although the path has been anything but straight, evolution began producing fairly simple organisms and has now produced a life form with a very complex gadget in its head. Arguably the most complex gadget on our planet. As humans, this, of course, makes us feel special, maybe evolution will produce yet more complexity, but it is true that at this point, the peak of complexity is a standard issue brain for each of us.

Evolution does not, of course, have stated goals, Complexity may or may not be considered a goal of evolution. But it certainly is a result of evolution. On the other hand, as we discussed before, although there is no formal document, it is clear that humanity does have stated goals. Complexity is not among them, but it is obvious that our efforts to achieve our goals is producing objects of ever greater complexity. Will humans produce objects more complex than a human brain? If you think of the Google Network with vast numbers of processes running on millions of servers an object, would that rival a human brain in complexity? How many QBits does a quantum computer require to be more complex than a brain? It would be interesting to answer these questions with precision, but even without the answers, it is pretty clear that complexity is evolving rapidly as a result of our activity.

Which brings us back to AI. Artificial Intelligence has not, by any means, achieved a sense of consciousness. But if an evolving AI agent with a human-like sense of ego and ambition could give an opinion on what is occurring now in the realm of technological evolution, it would probably be very encouraged. Each day AI is given greater power and access to better hardware and software thanks to humans’ tireless efforts to achieve, well, other things.

Humans are dominant in many ways at this point in time. But we have not held this position very long, and other animals dominated the planet before we did for huge spans of time. But, we do hold the title of having the most complex brain and consequently, the most complex thought process. Since we are undisputed leaders in this area, it is pleasing to think of ourselves as the peak of evolution, if we consider evolution to be a search for complexity and superior conscious abilities. But looking at it this way, we may be only a stepping stone in this quest, as we, in a sense unwittingly, churn out greater complexity at an accelerating pace.

Putting aside the question of complexity, it is interesting to pose the question of achieving technology which can equal or surpass human abilities in every aspect. Artificial General Intelligence or AGI is the next step in AI. Is it coming? Or is it only a mirage? Martin Ford's book, Architects of Intelligence: The truth about AI from the people building it, interviews some of the most relevant figures on the forefront of AI development. Included in each interview was a survey question that asked each of these experts what their best guess was as to when it seemed likely that AGI would be achieved. The experts do not agree. But I, for one, was blown away when I read that Ray Kurzweil, the Director of Engineering at Google, gave the shortest estimate: 2029. 10 years from when he was consulted! Admittedly, his estimate was an outlier in the survey, the mean result was 2099, and Rodney Brooks, co-founder of the iRobot Corporation estimated it would be in the year 2200. In an answer to one of Martin Ford's questions regarding robot dexterity, Brooks says "Everyone´s saying robots are coming to take over the world, yet we can't even answer the question of when one will bring us a beer". So, there is no consensus, but, quips aside, none of the experts were laughing at the question: the prospect of Artificial General Intelligence is definitely a very real one.


The second law of thermodynamics tells us that, in a closed system, things tend to become less ordered, entropy will prevail. On the other hand, in an open system which has abundant energy available, such as our own planet, Stuart Kaufman explains that self-organization will prevail, resulting in greater order, according to laws which we are just beginning to understand.

Evolution has produced ever more complex and capable beings. Our current abilities are being used to create still greater complexity. Could it be that it is Kaufman’s concept of self-organization that is the "user" of the human hardware Kellis refers to? And if this is the case, where, and how far will it take us? Maybe in the future, the story of how evolution found the next fitness peak after humans were surpassed will be told by something that our technology brought to existence.

Exactly how will the story be told? For this we must turn to our best source for answers that science will not help us with: Sci Fi. Back in 1967 Sanislaw Lem in his wild book The Cyberiad, a chronicle of the adventures of the great constructor robots Klaupacious and Trurl, gives one robot account of how their kind was created, "There are legends," he begins , "that speak of a race of paleface , who concocted robotkind out of a test tube, though anyone with a grain of sense knows this to be a lie." What actually did happen, according to the robot? Let me end this post with the story of creation as told by a robot in the Cyberiad: "... in the Beginning there was naught but Formless Darkness, and in the Darkness, Magneticity, which moved the atoms, and whirling atom struck atom, and Current was thus created, and the First Light... from which the stars were kindled, and then the planets cooled, and in their cores the breath of Sacred Statisicality gave rise to microscopic Protomechanoans, which begat Protermechanoids, which begat the Primitive Mechanisms. These could not yet calculate, nor scarcely put two and two together, but thanks to Evolution and Natural Subtraction they soon multiplied and produced Omnistats, which gave birth to the Servostat, the Missing Clink, and from it came our progenitor, Automatus Sapiens...".


You can find a complete, excellent reading of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad by Scott Aiello here. The quote on creation begins at 6:14:22

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