Writings

TSquare Magazine

Beyond the Built. Issue 25

01 02 03

Originally published. Kuwait University, 2022

The Speed of Technology and the Evolution of the Human Mind

This article explores the relationship between the speed of technology and our capability of being creative. How fast technology evolves depends on an ecosystem for creativity, an ability to create technology, and data for technology to advance. These are summarized through different perspectives relating to labour and society, evolution and behaviour, and artificial intelligence. Although these perspectives relate to complex theories and deserve to be written in depth, for this article they will be expressed in short. There is also awareness that these writings are Western-centric, specifically to the U.S. economy, its society, and its cities, which differ in other cultures and countries.

Society: Is technology only as fast as our society?

A simple thought experiment borrowed from Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is a good place to start. “Take a typical man on the street from the year 1900 and drop him into the 1950s. Then take someone from the 1950s and move him Austin Powers’s style into the present day. Who would experience the greater change?” This thought-provoking statement makes you wonder if there is a larger shift of technology and innovation from the early 1900s or from the 1950s and beyond. Most generations have their moments of passage from technology forgotten or never used. This generation may have never used a rotary phone, CRT television, headphone cassette player, or know about a 110 Kodak camera. This has all been replaced, with a swipe of a finger, into the smartphone. It is has become the cultural norm. Do we ask ourselves, is it the technology that is moving faster than our generations or is it a variation of the same technology—incremental change? Are we only as fast as our society or our environment? If so, what has made the greatest impact and what has caused this impact?

Although conscious that computer technology advances faster within a span of ten years—computers being out of date within 2 to 3 years—there are many factors that play a role in this rapid movement. Trends, marketing failures, industry changes, pandemics, or economic crashes can cause these changes. One point of view on how technology advances is through the social, cultural, and labour changes in correlation to creativity. Going back to the thought experiment and looking at each person from their new eras, they would each notice the vast difference in society with changing norms and values. Florida mentions the 1950s would be similar to that of 1900s with working conditions, corporate offices, and division of labour unchanged. The 1950s person placed in 2000 would have a much more difficult time adapting because of drastic changes in worldviews and openness to a different lifestyle. These include people in jeans and t-shirts running corporations, piercings and tattoos in the office, women and nonwhite managers, mixed race couples, businesses operated in garages, open plans, and career spans of three years rather than a lifetime loyalty. This change has to do with human creativity. It is the driving force and “key factor in our economy and society…[that] distinguishes us, as humans, from other species.”

Focusing on a culture of “creative species” creativity and innovation thrive within creative ecosystems such as Palo Alto (Silicon Valley), San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City. International places can include Dublin and London. These all have common denominators of diversity and inclusivity. Florida mentions, “creative people, in turn, don’t just cluster where the jobs are. They cluster in places that are centres of creativity and also where they like to live.” These places attract talent and creativity, which generates more ideas and inventions. It is this creative mind set and non static society that allowed us to develop the personal computer into a universal tool, giving access to a population not previously within reach of owning a computer. Let alone independently adding to an open system with code. The “creative species” broke from the large corporate structured white collared offices with research and development departments of IBM, Bell Labs, and Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Centre), to the makeshift garage studios for hobbyists turned entrepreneurs. Society’s changes towards diversity allow us to be more creative.

We may ask ourselves, so what? It is not so unfamiliar that a creative place adds to or attracts creative people—we may already know this.

Evolution: We can only move as fast as our minds have the capability of being creative.

If societies don’t advance, they become static and the probability of them evolving becomes minimal. The advantage of an advanced society is creativity—ideas as knowledge. Taking a deeper look at the causes of these changes in society, we can look through another perspective relating to evolution—a meme, coined by Richard Dawkins and developed further by Susan Blackmore. Although controversial, memes like genes are thought to be replicated and passed onto the next generation through natural selection. The exception is they can only be copied externally by “imitation.” They can mutate and vary to survive because of their useful value to us—think of technological inventions. In relation to Darwinism, genes are the physical traits such as eyes, hair, and height that are in our DNA. Genes are replicated to the next generation through natural selection. Memes are not in our DNA but in our external environment. We pass them from one mind to the next as learned culture and behaviour. As Susan Blackmore mentions, “Genes are instructions for making proteins…and passed on in reproduction. Their competition drives the evolution of the biological world. Memes are instructions for carrying out behaviour, stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by imitation. Their competition drives the evolution of the mind.” Some of the most valuable memes are considered music, language, scientific theories, religious beliefs, and ideas.

Imagine a dog taught to roll over by its owner—a learned skill—a meme. This will not pass onto the dog’s pups unless it teaches this to its pups. Perhaps if the dog taught this to its pups, we would raise the question of the dog’s intelligence. Although the dog imitates this meme, it didn’t come up with the idea to roll over; it was only copying the behaviour and not the meaning. Deciphering the meaning from the behaviour is what separates humans from the other species. It is believed we evolved not by copying behaviour but by copying knowledge and being creative—a mix of gene and meme natural selection. We create by using knowledge—the replicating memes.

If we are the only ones able to transfer knowledge, why didn’t we evolve or create any faster? There are many speculations but one idea is that we would need more complex brains with the capacity to remember more complex memes such as ideas. Our modern brain’s capacity compared to a computer is 10 billion bits per cubic centimetre while the computer holds 1 million bits per cubic centimetre. Roughly, the computer would have to be 10,000 times larger in volume to match the capability of the brain. Imagine when running a heavy code or rendering program and it says “out of memory” the computer is at full capacity and freezes—something needs to be deleted or the computer’s memory needs to be increased. With the capacity of more ideas stored in our mind, we can synthesise and mutate more ideas from a wider variety of sources, creating more valuable ideas that can push us forward. If not, we are acting on the same idea over and over again as does a stagnant society. Imagine drawing a straight line by repeating the same action. We would be acting on the same idea repeatedly without the capability or knowledge of drawing a curve. This doesn’t mean that we would not have the capacity to innovate or evolve; it would be at a slower pace.

Technology: The speed of artificial intelligence—machines are only as fast as the data

Algorithms are one of the core elements in computer intelligence that process rules from a top-down approach asking relevant questions to find an optimized solution. They learn according to the data given to them, which is processed mathematically in binary codes of 1s and 0s. They are only as intelligent as the programmer and the data they are given as they cannot program their own code. As for humans, we are only as creative as our mind’s ability to be creative. For machines to reach a level of “artificial intelligence” they have to pass a Turing Test. This is a litmus test proposed by Alan Turing, who was the founder of classical computation theory. It tests whether a human can tell the difference between a program or a human asking questions. This is similar to websites with chat bots asking if you need help—they reply with automated responses.

Since Alan Turing developed his theory in 1936 and helped with designing the one tonne code breaking machines for WWII, we have advanced towards expansions of machine intelligence with artificial intelligence or artificial “general” intelligence and machine learning that is all operable on a laptop. Advancements in algorithms and accessibility to an almost limitless amount of data are evolving us towards machine learning (neural networks). Basically, these algorithms learn from their mistakes. When it makes an error, it adjusts the algorithm’s equation to answer differently, aiming not to make the same mistake twice. In Marcus du Sautoy’s book, The Creative Code, he describes this as a bottom-up approach where algorithms learn like children in an environment of ever flowing data. Data is vital to this process because the more data they have, the more they can adjust themselves and learn. With 1 exabyte of data available each day from the internet, these algorithms have an abundance of information to train with. We could only advance machine learning as fast as the amount of data available. Now with “90 percent of the world’s data [being] created in the last five years” we have access to images, weather, language, GPS, and many more that can inform designs. This is all possible with the advent of the internet and Google’s search algorithm in the 90s. These advancements have given the possibility of computers writing their own codes or informing it to adjust the code. Imagine a computer teaching another computer how to write code—how to be creative. Although we are getting closer to artificial creativity with machine learning and data, we are far from this as we are still understanding creativity.

Data and algorithms allowed us to develop toward creative intelligence. These range from the arts with computer generated music composition, computer augmented poetry, and art. Architecture is exploring AI with generative design and readymade massing solutions for property developers. Some programs can extract data from property plots, regulations, and market rates to inform the user of possible massing variations for the plot. Although some are still solution based optimizations, they can inform the design with insight faster than a human would. We have to remember these are tools to augment and inform our creative process. We are still in control of the design.

Conclusion: Finding purpose to make an impact

We have come a long way from tool users to organized agriculture, specialized artisans (skilled trade), industrialization (factories), to highly organized societies with large-scale institutions (corporations with research and development). We are at the age of AI where a creative society breaking away from the norms of an organized society may have been the tipping point between human intelligence and machine intelligence. If we are advancing as fast as our ability to be creative, then we need to think creatively about how to use these intelligent tools. We have a creative society, a creative mind, and intelligent technology that augments creativity. It is about the mindset and how fast our human ability is to find purpose using data by adding value and transforming them into ideas that make an impact through economies, cities, and architecture.

Further Readings

Blackmore, Susan, The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.

Deutsch, David, The Beginning of Infinity, Penguin Books, London, 2012.

du Sautoy, Marcus, The Creativity Code, 4th Estate, London, 2020.

Florida, Richard, The Rise of the Creative Class, Basic Books, New York, 2002.

Sagan, Carl, The Dragons of Eden, The Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, 1977.

www.greatachievements.org