Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The next step in evolution: searchable, connected minds

The advancement of life on this planet has been through incremental improvements. Some call it evolution; others confuse it to be the work of a higher entity. In a time far far away (definitely more than 5000 years!) small organic compounds coalesced to form amino acids and lipids. Through several iterations and permutations, a few combinations developed curious properties of being able to transmute elements in their vicinity and in the process release energy; energy that kept the process going. As the conditions changed, some transmuting amino acids remained surrounded in lipids and survived longer than others. Over eons, some lipid-enclosed, transmuting combinations developed the curious ability to replicate their structure when conditions were favorable and began replacing the other compounds in their environment: sometimes by sheer numbers, sometimes by consuming the other compounds, at other times by consuming other lipid-enclosed, transmuting, replicating entities and in some interesting instances by being consumed and then replacing the consumer from within.

As the eons rolled past, these reproducing cells of lipids and amino acids banded together forming heterogeneous but intimately interdependent collectives. As before, these multi-cellular entities began to outnumber, outlast and out-consume others entities in their vicinity. Some developed the ability to relocate their collective in response to external stimuli and thus flee extenuating conditions or migrate to regions plush in consumable resources. By virtue of their advantages in consumption, reproduction, locomotion and adaptation these creatures evolved to move out of the primordial soup and take to the land and eventually the air.

As the competition fueled ecosystem evolved, its inhabitants developed simple syllogistic abilities: daylight implied safety (or night, depending on what worked for the creature); sweet smell meant good food (or a great trap a la pitcher plants); movement in the brush was indicative of a stalking predator, and so on. While this primitive intelligence sufficed for most species (as is evident from behaviors exhibited by several genera, like insects and animals even today), the ability to draw on past experiences began to assert its selective advantage in several “higher” (perhaps “complex” is a more accurate and “defendable” adjective) species. If your buddy got eaten at the water hole at high noon, chances are you want to avoid that time; or, conversely, if you managed to get a stomach full of delicious meat by stalking the water hole last noon, noon would be a good time or the water hole a good place to stalk again.

For our remote ancestors, spoken language was a natural development that furthered selective advantage. For the longest time, ideas and knowledge were passed between individuals and from generation to generation verbally, but along the way, the concept of writing developed. Writing afforded increasing the persistence of knowledge, to the extent of making some writing like the Egyptian hieroglyphs etched in stone. Books led to libraries so that learning about and remembering ideas (one’s own or others’) became a matter of finding the relevant page in the correct book. Writing also enabled the capture of ideas as a snapshot in time: deals, agreements and accords were now recorded for posterity on paper, guarded against non-repudiation by a person’s unique hand. Novel ideas could now be claimed and enforced as one’s own property.

While the increasing pool of written material afforded permanence of knowledge, it unmasked a gargantuan challenge of locating the apropos document. With the advent of computers, documents were no longer limited to text on paper, but morphed in to digital documents that grew to capture data as witnessed by the human senses: sound, images and video files proliferated in addition to textual data.

Computer networks and the Internet have now made electronic documents accessible and searchable as never before. Search engines like Google, Ask, Yahoo and MSN earn their livelihood by facilitating meaningful and accurate searches for information. The breadth of human memory is now augmented by the virtually infinite store of the massively distributed Internet, while its depth in terms of “remembering” past facts and ideas is supplemented by potent online searches.

image source

It is now, trivial to learn about the weird law in Memphis, Tennessee that requires that a woman driver drive at no more than 5 mph and have a male run in front of her car with a red flag to warn others. It is convenient beyond belief to look up a repreint of a 1903 article in NY Times that makes it legal for automobile drivers to drive more than 8 mph and over take pedestrians and horse drawn carriages.

(And progress is happening as you read this! Since I started writing this article, Amazon announced Kindle, a portable, web-connected electronic book reader. Thousands of newspapers, books and articles are now available for very attractive prices)

While the progress thus far has been amazing, there is ample room for more. Hitherto, only the auditory and visual senses have been targeted. The senses of smell, touch and taste have remained practically isolated from the digital revolution. Imagine a day when you could feel confident about buying that cologne you always wanted to try or those flowers to mollify your better-half online because you can smell them without leaving the confines and comfort of your desk. How about those chocolates or wines? And those jeans and those racquetball gloves?

Does it sound too much like the Matrix?

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