The evolution of the human machine

Andy Goodman

Are we designing the species that will make us extinct?

This is the question I posed to the audience during the TED2013 Talent Search earlier this month and it’s an interesting challenge, not just from an evolutionary and scientific but also philosophical viewpoint.

The thought of sentient machines being as aware of us as we are of bacteria is either terrifying or vaguely comforting depending on your perspective. Will we gather around the feet of the machines to be obliterated without a thought or just ignored and allowed to go about our peaceful cohabitation?

As a designer I have the privilege of working with engineers creating the next generation of smart objects and materials, with futurologists, with people delving into the world of machine to machine communication, with evolutionary biologists and with science fiction writers. The sci-fi writers are the most fun as they tell stories that almost rehearse the future before its happened.

It’s through these stories that we provide the human context, taking emphasis away from technology for technology’s sake and help people explore the consequences of the man-machine world that we are building.

For the first time in the history of mankind, the technologies we are creating are allowing us to influence and steer our evolutionary course. Like Marshall McLuhan said 50 years ago, objects, designed and conceived from the hand axe, to the Large Hadron Collider are all extensions of the body, they are all part of evolution.

Today we are building new creatures, not just organic ones but ones made of metal and silicon. Technology is changing our behaviours and influencing our emotions – just look how our feelings were modified by something as essentially dumb as a Tamagotchi and the change in habits imposed on us by our iPhones. How long before we create biological machines that can alter our moods and change our brain functioning? The long era of Darwinian evolution is over.

As our control over technology enables us to manipulate the world at a minute scale we have the opportunity to deliberately alter ourselves and other species. Where this leads us remains to be seen, but whatever the future, we must remember the human context to ensure we don’t lose ourselves in this new machine world.

You can see my full presentation here and if you like it.. vote for me!

Andy Goodman

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