It is so easy to overestimate high-tech innovations for human evolution. At least from the late 19th century on, it seems that innovations in technology and after the late 20th century information technology progress is all that matters when human progress is at stake. Hi-tech or no-tech seems to replace the old Hamlet ontological question: To be or not to be.
I bet that if a news appears claiming that the number of high-tech patents declined recently, we would all feel doomed. Somehow we started to believe that any possible development rest on technological innovation solely.
But is such a notion valid? Is technology the sole place where to search for innovations that bring advancements of our existence?
It is not difficult to see the correlation between technological shifts and better human conditions. But one could also find history cases proving once more that correlation is not causation. Chinese invented gunpowder 2000 years before they were able to capitalize it.
Bad joke? Not really.
Here is an excerpt from February 2011 New Scientist Article.
Along one side of an archway, a detection unit contains three concealed cartridges, each of which houses eight mice. During their 4-hour shifts in the detector, the mice mill about in a common area in each cartridge as air is passed over people paused in the archway and through the cartridge. When the mice sniff traces of any of eight key explosives in the air, they are conditioned to avoid the scent and flee to a side chamber, triggering an alarm. To avoid false positives, more than one mouse must enter the room at the same time.
Just as all that concentrated digital power is unable to sense the taste of a glass of very good wine despite knowing all its 10,000 or more ingredients, it is the analog human mind that drives invention. Since we are driven by memes, we should say: all inventions are indeed low-tech, analog, memetic. All inventions are low-tech at first and later use all sorts of high-tech plugins to make them happen. High-tech inventions come to the top.
But that does not mean that high-tech inventions are not important. Leonardo da Vinci made many low-tech inventions that were not really inventions because the state of the art at the time could not support them. Without the body (phenotype), the mind remains numb. Technological inventions are like such bodies of invention that enable the imagined, but also trigger further low-tech inventions. And so on.
Daniel Dennett’s detailed elaboration of a distinction between competence without comprehension in From Bacteria to Bach and Back (2017) contributed massively to a better understanding of how evolution works. Comprehension seamlessly emerge from the myriad iterations of pure competence without comprehension. But he does not reflect the opposite: what happens when human comprehension creates competence without comprehension.
The case of technological innovation provides a perfect example of a competence acting as an intelligent designer of a competence. With our comprehension, we have developed a competence that runs counter to the laws of evolution. There is nothing wrong with that alone. comprehension, which is an enormous comparative advantage of humans over animals, has proven to be evolutionarily advantageous. But it would be wrong to assume that anything designed by man as a competent machine could also soon develop comprehension. If such a competent machine were allowed to reproduce, mutate, and evolve over millions of years or more, its comprehension might emerge. To expect that it might emerge sooner is contrary to the laws of evolution.
Our bodies and brains, as explained in the previous post, are clumsy compared to today’s AI robots. But they are clumsy precisely because they are based on millions of years of evolution that ensure our robustness and antifragility. Technological innovations that produce incredibly competent tools are super-duper, but they can not match the persistence of evolution.
This is the fourth revision of a post from 2011.