Elon Musk often mentions cyborgs at events and during interviews. This concept is not just a funny remark, a sci-fi reference, or a way to throw around big terms to sound smarter. It’s an important paradigm, a lens we can look at the past with, and more importantly, a concept that will have a great impact on the future of our species.
Before unveiling the Tesla Model Y on Thursday night, Elon Musk walked us through the history of Tesla. In the beginning, there was only the original Roadster, and a relatively small team developed the Model S in a small corner of a SpaceX rocket building facility. To mass produce cars, he arranged to buy a shuttered General Motors factory in Fremont, California. He said some people though that buying a car factory meant he could just start building cars, but it was really just an empty shell of a building, like an abandoned warehouse.
To build cars, Tesla had to finish building the inside of the factory. It needed machines, tooling, computers, robots, and people to all work together to go from parts to functioning cars.
He described the end result as a “giant cybernetic collective” where 20,000 people, countless machines, numerous computers, and communications systems all work together over 4–5 shifts to build cars.
This wasn’t a cute or witty comment he threw around. If you look at various interviews on YouTube, Elon explains the idea in much more depth. It’s an important lens through which he views the past and present, and has very important implications for the future of humanity. But, to understand this concept and its importance, we have to go through a good bit of background information.
Our Brains Are NOT Computers
When looking at the “man vs. machine” question, we have to be careful to not get the two mixed up. Computers are designed to do certain tasks as efficiently and quickly as possible by crunching the numbers. The human brain, on the other hand, has a much more interesting history and structure.
In the mid 20th century, researchers started comparing the structures of the human brain with those of animals. What they found is that we have a lot in common with some animals, and only some things in common with others. Why? Because brains evolve to take care of the survival needs of the being in question, mostly because animals with brains ill-suited to survival don’t survive, and don’t pass those features on to offspring. Different animals will have different brains, but features inherited from a common ancestor that work well in both animals will stay much the same.
In nature, brains can vary widely. Sea stars, for example, don’t technically have a brain like we do (and that’s why Patrick is portrayed as unintelligent in Sponge Bob Square Pants). They do, however, have brain-like cells distributed throughout their bodies and it works well for what they do to live. Among invertebrates, mollusks have the most advanced brains, and evolved to have brains at least four separate times. While humans and mollusks do have a common ancestor, that common ancestor probably didn’t have a brain. A brain developed separately only after the lineages of the vertebrates and invertebrates split. Because our ancestors’ survival needs differed greatly from theirs, our brains look and work very differently. Even the individual neurons/brain cells in our brains differ from those of the invertebrates.
Compared to other animals with backbones, though, we have a lot more in common. Neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean identified three basic divisions in our brain:
- The “reptilian” brain
- The “lower mammal” brain
- The “higher mammal” brain
Our very basic life functions, our basic emotions, and our movement are all controlled in our “reptilian” brain, and those structures look and act much like the brain of a reptile. On top of that, we have the “mammal” brain, also known as the limbic system, that governs mammalian needs, like feeding, nurturing and social behavior with other mammals. That commonality is probably why humans are so good at relating to our most popular pets: cats and dogs.
Built atop all of that, we have a “higher mammal” brain, also known as the neocortex. Among primates, ours is the largest and most advanced. This part of our brains helps us do things like language, abstract thinking, perception, and planning. While we would like to think this part of our brain rules it all, we use our smarts mostly to satisfy the needs and impulses of the lower parts of the brain (eating, reproduction, etc.).
This complicated mess doesn’t always work like it should, and it definitely doesn’t work like a computer. We have conflicting needs, instincts, and myriad disorders that can develop. Much of our brain’s evolution happened in a hunter-gatherer environment, while we live in a very different world today with very different survival needs.
Networking With Other People’s Brains
Hugh Howey points out in Wired that our brains are very good at figuring out what other brains are thinking. In a hunter-gatherer situation, it’s important for Ug to know whether the other caveman is going to kill him or trade with him. We are very good, but not perfect, at reading other people’s facial expressions, guessing what might be bothering them, or otherwise trying to predict the future of others.
However, we don’t dare point that flashlight into the dark of our own minds. We tend to tell ourselves stories about ourselves and our motivations that differ from reality. Why? Because that truth is often too depressing and we need to keep moving to survive.
He also points out that the common parts of the brain might work very differently from person to person. For example, the part of our brain that looks to reproduce might not ever achieve that goal because it drives us toward partners of the same sex in some of us. Meanwhile, other humans don’t understand it because their brain doesn’t work like that.
While not perfect at it, the human brain is built to connect to other brains. Our survival is almost always dependent on our interaction with other humans and even some animals, so much of the neocortex and parts of the “lower” brain spend most of their time trying to send and receive data from other brains through language, facial expressions, writing, and speech. Many in our society who are considered disabled have perfectly functioning arms and legs, and are quite mobile and strong, but fail to provide for themselves because they can’t communicate or relate to other humans like the rest of us can.
The human brain is so dependent on the brains of others, that we even store information in other people’s heads. We do this without thinking about it, often with those we are closest to. Members of a group in a family, a job, or in other tight-knit social settings tend to start taking on specialized tasks. We all have our talents and areas that we are better at than the others, so the others expect us to remember the relevant information so they don’t have to. The important thing is remembering who knows what, so we know who to ask for information when it’s needed. This is known as group transactional memory.
The larger point here is that human brains evolved to work with other brains to get things done. It’s in our nature to network and reach out. Thousands of years ago, writing systems developed and we took our first steps toward storing information using non-living things and extending our mental networking reach past the reach of our voice and the limits of time.
That Time Humans Slowly Became Cyborgs
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.” —Nikola Tesla, 1926
While connecting to the brains of others is older than history, important changes started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We started to extend our reach to the brains of others in ways prehistoric humans could probably not imagine. Telegraphs, telephones, and radio made these long-distance communications instant where letters and books took time to send and read.
This is the point where we began to be cyborgs, but it was just the beginning. Telephones, radios and telegraphs only relay information. They don’t add anything to the conversation or help organize the communication between humans. As computers got better and better during the 20th century, we became more and more cybernetic. The role of the machines went from strictly passing information to contributing, organizing, helping, and more recently, directing us.
This is the point where we can get back to Elon Musk’s concept of “cybernetic collectives” and make more sense of it. He’s discussed it in a number of interviews, but the segment of the interview with Joe Rogan might be the most clear and easy to follow.
In short, nearly any present-day group of people is a cybernetic collective. At work, computers assist us with many tasks, and help us communicate with our coworkers. The tools we use do more and more with less and less of our input. We go to and from places where we work with complex machines. We use smartphones to perform an increasing number of tasks at work, for play, and in our families. Social networks connect us to people we know in real life and to people we’ve never met, help us find people to connect to, and decide what we see when we open the apps/websites.
Some collectives are better than others at collecting humans. While the human brain is great at many analytical tasks, we tend to use almost all of that brain power to keep the “lower mammal” limbic system happy. Most users of social networks, “gig economy” apps, and other similar things aren’t aware that there are literally teams of psychologists behind the most successful networks trying to get people to engage with it in ways that best suit those who run the network.
The thing is, though, that this isn’t a dastardly scheme for mind control. Social networks are just following the same path our brain did during its development. These new extensions of our brains are evolving to best suit their survival needs. Those that “resonate” with our limbic system survive better than others that do not. The successful ones develop to service our basic mammalian needs and work well with our “higher mammal” neocortex. They are quickly becoming a fourth layer of our brain, for better or worse.
The only reason we are suddenly noticing the rapid changes now is that we are approaching a tipping point where the contributions of the machines in our cybernetic collectives are rapidly growing, while our contributions aren’t changing much. We are even seeing the machines in our cybernetic collectives contribute more than we do in some cases, and even start to replace some of the humans involved.
What Happens Next?
The obvious question now is what will happen to us now that the machines are starting to outperform us within our cybernetic collectives. While we can’t predict the future, we can make educated guesses. Hopefully with the background provided in this article, our guesses will be a little more educated.
Elon Musk made several educated guesses, and did it in the fashion of the typical futurist. In the worst case, we are completely replaced by the machines and possibly are even destroyed by them. One better but still not great outcome would be the rule by benign superintelligent machines, or, in other words, we become “pets” to the AI, who treat us well. One better outcome might be that we “merge” with the superintelligent AI machines and grow with them into the future.
The fact that we are already in cybernetic collectives makes this look more likely, but we have a big problem with bandwidth. We simply can’t communicate with them anywhere nearly as quickly as they can communicate with each other. I am typing this paper at approximately 80 words per minute. When you use a phone or tablet, you are far slower at data input than that (as am I). We can read and perceive pictures and video to bring data into our brains pretty fast, but there are still limits on both the upload and the download speeds.
Elon Musk proposes we solve this problem and improve the chances of human survival by implanting devices in our brains to provide high-speed data transfer between us and the machines. For that reason, he founded a company: Neuralink.
But does this theory pan out in the real world? Let’s look at one example and try it out.
One Example: Trucking
Image by leestilltaolcom on Pixabay
Both within the trucking industry and outside of it, few professions have the mythical quality that truck driving does. Movies like Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit portray the job as one of rugged individualism, with plenty of hard work and freedom for every mile. For those of us who haven’t been around truck stops much, it’s probably hard to not think of the industry as one that hasn’t changed much in decades.
When it comes to “robot trucking”, many probably envision a trucker from the 1970s, dressed in cowboy clothes, being ordered out of the cab by an emotionless Terminator cyborg from the future. In short, it’s tempting (and perhaps cinematic) to skip from the mid 20th century to the mid 21st century, while ignoring what came before and during the change.
If we treat this issue like something so simple, we risk completely mishandling it and leaving displaced truckers worse off than if we had done nothing at all. But, if you’ve read this far, you know that it doesn’t work like that. The transition is already underway, and the obvious changes are afoot only now.
Image by FrankMagdelyns1 on Pixabay
If we look at things like Elon Musk does, truckers really started becoming cyborgs with CB radio. Not only were they able to talk short range to other truckers, but they also got information about road conditions far ahead, had conversations to pass the time, and warned each other about “bears” ahead on the road — the cops trying to write them tickets. This basically turned trucking into a big, and somewhat short range, cybernetic collective.
It should be no surprise that truckers would often add linear amplifiers or use Amateur Radio gear to go far, far beyond the 4 watt limit imposed by the FCC. Sometimes truckers would transmit using over a kilowatt of power. When conditions were right, 27-28 MHz signals would “skip” over the horizon by bouncing off of the earth’s ionosphere, allowing the truckers to talk to others hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Even seemingly primitive cybernetic collectives give the individual such an advantage that they’re willing to risk multi-thousand dollar fines from the FCC to enlarge the number of other connected individuals. If you think about it, this gave them superhuman abilities compared to people just 50 years earlier. In Brazil, truckers in areas with no cell phone coverage use modified radios to use older, unencrypted U.S. Navy satellites to get coverage across South America. Despite repeated raids and mass arrests, Brazilians continue to use the satellites illegally.
Two-way voice radio wasn’t the end of it. As technology improved and dropped in price, truckers and trucking companies expanded the abilities of truck drivers. Satellite tracking, GPS, cellular phones, and other communications technologies were often adopted early by truckers. Larger companies even use GPS technology to get automated warnings when trucks go into higher crime areas and places with a history of load theft.
As computing power advanced and became smaller, Truckers got smartphones like everybody else. And, like any big group of people, applications came along that catered to their differing needs. While not specifically made for truckers, the Waze app is popular in the business. Like CB radio, the app lets drivers leave warnings and information behind on the map, report and correct map errors, and do other limited things while driving. The app itself uses GPS reports from both itself and Google Maps to detect traffic jams, and report those to drivers, and even tries to route drivers around them.
In other words, we are starting to see the contribution of the machines increase, and not just pass information between humans.
But where is this going?
What happens next in the trucking industry is a big issue. There are 3.5 million truck drivers, and it’s the most common job in 29 states. And that’s just those doing the driving. There are over 7 million others working in support positions, at truck stops, and at trucking facilities. Handling this problem wrong can have major bad consequences for the entire economy.
This is a big enough issue that 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang has made it an important component in his campaign and a common example in his stumping so far. He points out that automation is already killing jobs by the millions in swing states, and that ignoring the impact of job losses to automation could have been an important factor in Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory.
Yang, and many others, predict that the role of machines in the truck-driving cybernetic collective will increase until the machines are doing the driving and millions are left out of a job. Yang proposes a $1,000 monthly “universal basic income” for all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 to help cushion the landing for people falling out of employment as more jobs in more industries are lost.
If Musk is right about the evolution of cybernetic collectives coming before job replacement and after it, then we should be seeing some moves toward partial replacement. And, we are seeing that. Autonomous trucks are getting good enough to safely drive in rural areas with low traffic in good conditions, and on the highways within cities in many cases, but that doesn’t mean that the driver can be safely removed from the cab, because the difficult situations will still require a human driver.
To get over this challenge, some of the companies developing autonomous trucks are installing a suite of cameras and sensors to allow remote piloting of the vehicles. Truck drivers will be on standby ready to take over when an autonomous truck has a “disengagement” and can no longer safely operate the truck by itself. Using a big array of screens and video game-like controls, the trucker can operate the vehicle remotely through 5G data connections until the vehicle can safely take over again.
The virtual cab isn’t the end of human involvement, but what place have beyond that will be is harder to predict. Some think that computers will not be able to ever achieve 100% self driving of vehicles, for a variety of reasons. Many others, especially those working on the technology, think it’s not only possible, but will happen sooner than we think.
If autonomous vehicles do get to the point where they don’t need human assistance, even remotely, then the number of human backup drivers would reduce slowly until there are few, if any, left. At that point, would something like Neuralink work to help us be smart enough to compete in the new superintelligent job market? Or will humans all need to be put on disability in the form of universal basic income to survive? Or will someone come up with a better solution?
Up to now, Elon Musk’s paradigm of “cybernetic collectives” does seem to check out, but the future is much harder to predict. What do you think we will need to do to survive and thrive in a vastly changed economy? Let’s keep this discussion going in the comments and on social media!
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