quentin_hardy's picture
Deputy Technology Editor, The New York Times; Former Lecturer, U.C. Berkeley's School of Information
The Great Convergence

We are entering the Age of Awareness, marked by machine intelligence everywhere. It is a world instrumented with sensors that constantly describe the location and state of billions of people and objects, transmitting, analyzing, and sharing this information in cloud computing systems that span the globe. We are aware of innumerable interactions, and increasingly capable of statistically projecting outcomes.

The scientific breakthroughs will depend not just on these tools, but equally on the system into which they are integrated. The biggest changes and breakthroughs from the instrumented world bring together once disparate sectors of computing which, by working in unison, create new approaches to product design, learning, and work.

The sectors include mobility, sensors, cloud computing, and data analysis, whether by machine learning or artificial intelligence. Sensors don’t just give us new information about nature and society, they inform the configuration of cloud systems, and the behavior of the analysis algorithms is likewise affected by the success with which it alters the other two.

The result is a kind of flywheel world, in which data that was once stored and fetched now operates in streams, perpetually informing, changing, and being changed. The accelerating rate of change and increasing pace of discovery noted by many is a result of this shift. On a pragmatic level, it means that we will design much of the world to be in potential state, not a fixed one, since its value is also derived from interaction. On a somewhat more philosophical level, it is the end of the 2,500-year-old (and increasingly suspect) Aristotelian project of creating a state of final knowledge.

Inside this system, the eternal present of consciousness within a solitary self is being modified by a highly connected and global data storage of the past, computation of the present, and statistical projection of the future.

We already see our human habits changing with the new technology, much the way print once reoriented political and religious consciousness, or society changed to suit industrial patterns. As people, we are starting to imitate a software-intensive cloud computing system. Billions of people are gaining near-infinite capabilities to communicate across languages to billions of other people. Artificial ntelligence agents resident within those systems will track people, learning and assisting them, and to yet-unknown extents reporting on the individuals to corporate (and possibly government) masters.

Learning is increasingly a function of microcourses that teach what you need to know, and thanks to analysis in the system, what you need to know next. We perceive life’s genetic code as an information system, and are learning how to manipulate it, either to hack the human body or to use DNA for unimaginably small and powerful computers that could extend greatly the powers of awareness and control.

Unique among times when technology has changed ideas about the world, this Age of Awareness knows that it is remaking the consciousness and expectations of being human. Guttenberg in 1450, or an industrialist in 1810, had no awareness of an effect on humans wrought by new technologies. Everyone now building the instrumented, self-aware planet can see and analyze the effect of their labor. That does not, to date, significantly improve our ability to plan or control its outcomes.