Does it seem like the world around us is changing incredibly fast? Well, that’s because it is. Renowned futurist and best selling author Ray Kurzweilprojects that in the 21st century, humanity will see 20,000 years worth of change. Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari says “If somebody describes the world of the mid-twenty-first century to you and it doesn’t sound like science fiction, it is certainly false. We cannot be sure of the specifics; change itself is the only certainty.” One might posit that we are entering the second adaptation of humanity.
The first adaptation was when we fell (or maybe climbed) out of the trees and it has largely been a physical adaptation. That is, we invented tools to survive and prosper. From agricultural tools to weapons, then later, transportation so that we could move about faster and easier. The first cognitive tools we developed were language and then writing. These communication tools enabled us to build larger social organizations and thus more tools. We began to compete with one another in what has come to be termed the Red Queen Effect in that to survive, humans must constantly adapt and innovate as we compete with one another and other species for resources.
Humanity has always evolved with the technologies that we develop. They shape us as we shape them. This is called technogenesis. How each shapes the other is a topic of great debate. Not where I’m going.
As the 20th century came to a close, we invented communications technologies that propelled the one area that truly accelerates change in humans; ideas and culture. Ideas and culture shift and change far faster than have our biological aspects and our tool use. When the printing press arrived and ideas could be expressed in greater detail, debated and more books and papers created, so our societies underwent massive changes.
“Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world.” — Lauren Bacall
Fast forward to the opening of the 21st century and communications technologies such as the internet, social media, smartphones and computers enabled us to connect unlike ever before in the history of our species. We have also seen the rise of artificial intelligence, which is a cognitive augmentation.
As we progress into the 21st century, we are augmenting our species more cognitively than physically. We are building on the base of physical augmentation as we alway will. You can’t go to Mars in your head, you need a spaceship to get your head there in real life.
“History began when humans invented gods and will end when humans become gods.” — Yuval Noah Harari
With artificial intelligence, quantum computing, blockchain, genetic engineering and other technologies, we are starting a new era of adaptation. One where we can better harness knowledge and ideas, learn faster and make changes faster. Just as when we had to adapt physically through physical tool use, in this second adaptation, the advantage will be to those who continuously learn, develop and use mental models and understand how to leverage cognitive technologies such as artificial intelligence to effect change and make progress. Again, as Yuval Noah Harari says, “In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above to reinvent yourself again and again.”
Humanity is reinventing itself now. We have entered the age of the second adaptation and it is a time that will impact the world the same way it did when we invented agriculture. Yet perhaps even more profoundly.