Mind for our Minds is an insight series on the future of the collective intelligence of humans and machines in a complex world.
Take a moment to imagine this: you stand in the middle of Grand Central Station as throngs of people hurry past. You wonder, who are these people? Where have they been? Where are they going? What are their goals, beliefs, worries, and hopes? What idiosyncrasies do they have? What does their life look like? To them?
Everyone has a rich inner life, one as complex as your own. This sudden realization has a name—sonder. It’s a meta-empathy, a deep sense of connectivity and apartness coexisting in a single emotion. Sonder makes us loyal to humanity.
As our brains evolved, specialized areas developed and were reinforced through practicing innate talents. With a community of experts, we combine our computational capacity, overcoming limitations on human cognition. Feeling "sonder" energizes us as we realize others have the same capacity to feel. Our need to belong in a group exists in tension with our individualistic desires. Survival depends on being part of the group. The rituals of art, ceremony, and story evolved to serve our community of shared thinking. This is what we experience as culture.
Machines have different skills than humans. Machines can complement us by thinking in high-dimensional spaces and at speeds we cannot. They are powerful tools but their power is not evenly distributed. What does it mean that machines are now part of our community? What becomes of the fabric of human culture when machines create new fault lines?
Machines create a distinct cultural power. The new others are a specific kind of cyborg. They are humans who have preferential access to machines that use the data of human culture and behavior to build worlds. These others build new cultures because of their relationship with machines.
AI has already had a profound impact on professional status. In companies that build artificial intelligence, it’s common for the people who build the nervous system, guts, and brains of the intelligence to have higher status and more influence than those who build the hearts and minds of the technology.
Within society, industry, and organizations, technologists gain status and decision power at the expense of diversity. The problems that are not subject to mathematization are seen as less addressable, which changes the way resources are directed towards their solution. Problems that aren’t addressable by machine become externalities for non-cyborgs to take on.
When the AI intelligentsia applies datafication to human culture, they gain unique power. Machines can create a sense of “unbelonging,” shifting power to those fluent in AI. Ethicists have alerted us to biased AI, prompting change. AI makes visible what was once invisible, leading to cultural change. Ethicists play a crucial role in moving decision boundaries towards more fair outcomes, as models embed technologists' choices of optimization, often impacting societal values. These are often things society might want to leave open. But being an ethicist in Big Tech is like surfing Nazarre in an outrigger—hopelessly overwhelmed by the shear size and momentum of the wave, clinging to a craft which is ill-suited to the modern world.
AI is a cultural technology that produces different outcomes depending on its cultural context. Weirdly, it is possible that AI could change the course of human evolution sooner than we might think. If you think culture can’t beat genetics, consider how the success of the Cesarean procedure has marginally relaxed genetic selection in humans, slightly increasing the likelihood that a daughter born by Cesarean will herself require one. AI could conceivably enhance culture-driven gene-culture coevolution, creating adaptive advantages of cultural inheritance that drive the evolution of specific genetic traits. A recent meta-analysis that found that human evolution is shifting from gene-dominated to culture-dominated through the interplay of technology, environment, and group dynamics. This can be understood as a debate between whether "culture steers human evolution" or "genes hold culture on a leash." In other words, AI could potentially create new opportunities for cultural evolution to influence genetic evolution, rather than the other way around. In human evolution, it seems that culture may become more important than code.
If AI can provide adaptive advantages that drive cultural inheritance, the use of machines may create a distinct advantage for the "coding elite" of software developers, tech CEOs, investors, and computer science and engineering professors. By controlling algorithms, the coding elite concentrates power and can even affect political gains. As algorithms become more integrated into society, institutions that were once out of reach of algorithmic systems become increasingly subject to them. Consequently, the culture at the highest level is shaped by the people who shape the algorithms.
Culture plays a vital role in connecting individuals and communities, enabling us to leverage our unique talents, share knowledge, and solve problems together. However, the rise of an intelligentsia of machine soothsayers highlights the need to consciously design new coherence strategies for the age of machines.
Who will take on this challenge, and how will culture evolve in response to the growing influence of machines? This is the essential question that requires careful consideration as we navigate the complex interplay between human culture and technology, seeking to preserve sonder as for humans only.
Read the more from the Mind for our Minds series: