Sunday, June 17, 2012

What Technology Wants

I recently learned that the eye has evolved analogously many times in many separate evolutionary paths. It's hard to get an exact number, since it all depends on how far back you go, but I've read somewhere between 7 and 45 times. This phenomenon is known as convergence, in which descendants of unrelated ancestors develop the same or similar traits.

Convergence isn't rare. In fact, it may be the rule rather than the exception. The reason is that some  things just make sense in a given environment. Eyes evolved numerous times because light (photons) is the most efficient means of communication in many places. An organism that evolves eyes is likely to have a much greater advantage over one that doesn't all things considered. You might even say that nature wants eyes.

A similar thing happens in the human world of science and technology. Many people have noticed that inventions and discoveries tend to converge at the same time: calculus, the light bulb, and the telephone, just to name a very small few. More recently, HP and Canon developed the ink-jet printer at the exact same time. Again, convergence seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

One of the better-known explanations of scientific convergence comes from philosopher Thomas Kuhn. He argued that scientific discovery occurs within the confines of paradigms which are eventually eclipsed by other paradigms. Within the Ptolemaic system, for example, you can account for strange orbits of planets like Mercury by adding epicycles. Two Medieval astronomers are going to come up with (roughly) the same epicycles for the same interstellar body since they're working in the same paradigm. Two 18th c. astronomers are going to come up with (roughly) the same numbers for the same interstellar body since they're working in the same paradigm of Newtonian physics.

Kevin Kelly makes much out of the analogy between biological evolution and technological evolution. He thinks of technology as a kind of Seventh Kingdom, after the other six: bacteria, archaea, eukarya, plantae, fungi, and animalia.  He calls this seventh kingdom 'the technium', writing:
The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool-making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections.
Looking at technology as a form of life allows you to make some interesting connections. For instance, just as we can say that nature seems to want eyes, we could say that technology wants platforms from which we can build other things. It's no surprise that we keep developing new platforms--the most recent being 'the cloud'--that build on those of others. This is similar to the way sea creatures moved onto land, building on the energy-rich platform created by plant life.

I'll not get into the philosophical issues of Artificial Intelligence or intentionality, but we can at least agree that technological development has certain tendencies. Once of which is exponential growth. Another is decentralization. Is it any surprise we develop the same solutions to the same problems at the same time?

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