Self-proclaimed "wonder junkie" Jason Silva, host of National Geographic Channel’s “Brain Games,” served up “philosophical shots of espresso” as he delivered the keynote address at the 2014 Honeywell Users Group (HUG) in Scottsdale, Ariz., June 9, urging a crowd of 700 to embrace the future and all of its possibilities.
“I am extremely passionate about technology and innovation,” Silva said. “The reason for that is because I believe technology is an extension of human creativity. Technology is how we extend our will out in the world. Technology, as the cognitive philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers describe it, is a scaffolding that extends our thought, our reach, and our vision. I believe technology is how we impregnate the world with mindedness.”
The most amazing aspect of technology, Silva said, is “its ability to extend our sphere of possibilities … at an exponential rate.” To illustrate, he cited an example given by futurist, inventor, and author Ray Kurzweil.
“If you take 30 linear steps—you take one, two, three, four, five—by step 30, you get to 30," Silva said. "That’s easy enough; that’s intuitive; that’s linear change. But that’s not how the world works now when it comes to technology and innovation. If you take the same amount of steps … exponentially—you go two, four, eight, 16—by step 30, you’re at a billion!
“That’s the reason that the smartphone in your pocket today is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful than what used to be a $60 million supercomputer that was half a building in size in Stanford 40 years ago and you needed special privileges to get access to,” Silva said. “So, what used to be half a building now fits in your pocket. And what currently fits in your pocket in the next 25 years is going to be the size of a blood cell interfacing with your biological neurons, further augmenting and extending our intelligence and our reach.”
According to Silva: “Gene sequencing today is going three times faster than Moore's law. In other words, it’s going three times faster than exponential. … So, all of a sudden, biology becomes a new substrate for our artistry. It becomes a new canvas for our creativity. The famed physicist Freeman Dyson says imagine a future where a new generation of artists and engineers will be writing genomes with the fluency that Blake and Byron wrote verses. So, you have biotechnology, you have Quantified Self revolution, you have us extending sensors into everything, taking that data, putting it back into the system.
“… Then, you have the nanotechnology revolution, which is manipulating matter at the level of the atoms,” Silva continued. “The full blossoming of that turns matter into a programmable medium—the physical world becomes as programmable as software.”
The coalescence of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics and artificial intelligence is “time-lapsing our capacity to create art and change in the world,” setting the course for “a future that is so hard to imagine that we use metaphors instead,” Silva said.
Silva realizes not everyone shares his enthusiasm.
“One of the biggest issues that people have with technology is they worry that it’s somehow unnatural,” he said. “What are we really doing? Are we messing with nature? … No, we’re not because technology is nature. Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine, … describes technology as the seventh kingdom of life, subject to the same evolutionary forces as biology. … One of the most amazing fields of research is the one that’s identifying all these patterns between natural systems and man-made systems. The more advanced our technology becomes, the more it’s starting to mirror patterns found in nature. I remember the first time that I read that the way the Internet is wired mirrors the way our neurons are wired in our brain, which themselves mirror the way dark matter is organized in the universe. … It’s becoming increasingly clear that a grand continuity connects the world of the born and the world of the made. … Technology is a part of us. How can it be unnatural? We emerged from the biosphere. Anything that we create is still emerging from the biosphere. Technology is our spiderweb; it’s our second skin; it’s our exoskeleton.”
The future is brighter than popularly believed, Silva said.
“A lot of people worry,” he said. “They see this, and they’re like: ‘Yeah, you’re really excited. You’re really optimistic about this stuff, but, like, watch the news.’ It seems like doom and gloom. We do have a media environment where, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ and we do have a capacity to amplify and magnify all the things that are going wrong. So, sometimes, we actually feel like the world is going to hell when, in fact, it’s not.
“I always tell people to check out the work of Steven Pinker,” Silva said. “He has a famous TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk called ‘The Myth of Violence,’ in which he actually illustrates across all these data points how the world has actually never been less violent than it is today. … The chances of a man dying at the hands of another man are the lowest that they’ve ever been today. … Hans Rosling is a statistician that went viral on the Internet because he had these animated graphs in which he showcased every nation on earth, by every measurable indicator of quality of life, has been rising. … Steven Johnson said in his book ‘Future Perfect’ it’s not utopia, but it’s leaning that way. I think these messages, this sense of optimism, is very important to put out into the world because a lot of people feel very fatalistic. They feel like we’ll never be able to address climate change or we’ll never be able to address the energy crisis, and that’s not true! We just need to innovate ourselves to address those challenges. That’s the thing about these technologies. All of a sudden, individuals have the power that only governments and corporations had a couple decades ago. We leverage these emerging technologies, we could address the grand challenges of humanity.”