The Nöoscene

By Jamais Cascio
The Atlantic, July/August 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

We don't have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our intelligence. We can do it ourselves.

If intelligence augmentation has the kind of impact I expect, we may soon be living in an entirely new era. The focus of our technological evolution would be less on how we manage and adapt to our physical world, and more on how we manage and adapt to the immense amount of knowledge we've created. We can call it the Nöocene epoch, from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Nöosphere, a collective consciousness created by the deepening interaction of human minds.

We've been augmenting our ability to think for millennia. When we developed written language, we increased our functional memory and our ability to share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. And caffeine and nicotine are both cognitive enhancement drugs.

The ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems doesn't look much like the capacity to memorize and recite facts. But building it up may improve the capacity to think deeply. And we shouldn't let the stresses associated with a transition to a new era blind us to that era's astonishing potential.

The trouble isn't that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy. Worries about "information overload" predate the rise of the Web, and many new technologies were developed precisely to help us get some control over a flood of data and ideas. Google is the beginning of a solution.

When people hear the phrase intelligence augmentation, they tend to envision people with computer chips plugged into their brains, or a genetically engineered race of post-human super-geniuses. Neither of these visions is likely to be realized, for reasons familiar to any Best Buy shopper. In a world of on­going technological acceleration, today's cutting-edge brain implant would be tomorrow's obsolete junk.

Likewise, the safe modification of human genetics is still years away. And even after genetic modification of adult neurobiology becomes possible, the science will remain in flux. As with digital implants, the brain modification you might undergo one week could become obsolete the next.

In one sense, the age of the cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic modification. Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would once have been almost unimaginable.

Any occupation requiring pattern-matching and the ability to find obscure connections will quickly morph from the domain of experts to that of ordinary people whose intelligence has been augmented by cheap digital tools. As the digital systems we rely upon become faster, more sophisticated, and more capable, we're becoming more sophisticated and capable too. We learn to adapt our thinking and expectations to these digital systems, even as they come to adapt to us.

Imagine if social tools like Twitter had a way to learn what kinds of messages you pay attention to, and which ones you discard. Such attention filters are likely to become important parts of how we handle our daily lives. They could become individualized systems that augment our capacity for planning and foresight. These systems would eventually be able to pay attention to what we're doing and learn to interpret our desires. With enough time and complexity, they would be able to make useful suggestions without prompting.

Such systems won't be working for us alone. We already provide crude cooperative information filtering for each other. In time, our interactions through the use of such intimate technologies could dovetail with our use of collaborative knowledge systems to help us not just to build better data sets, but to filter them with greater precision, becoming something akin to collaborative intuition.

In pharmacology, too, the future is already here. As the science improves, we could see cognitive modification drugs that boost recall, brain plasticity, even empathy and emotional intelligence. They would start as therapeutic treatments, but some of them may become over-the-counter products at your local pharmacy.

The most radical form of superhuman intelligence would be a mind that isn't human at all. Here we move to the realm of speculation. A mind running on a machine platform instead of a biological platform may soon be possible. We just need to develop computing hardware able to run a high-speed neural network as sophisticated as that of a human brain, and wait for the kids who will have grown up surrounded by virtual-world software and household robots to come to dominate the field.

Many proponents of developing an artificial mind are sure that such a breakthrough will be the biggest change in human history. They believe that a machine mind would soon modify itself to get smarter, and with its new intelligence figure out how to make itself smarter still. The Singularity concept is a secular echo of Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point," the culmination of the Nöosphere at the end of history.

The same advances in processor and process that would produce a machine mind would also increase the power of our own cognitive enhancement technologies. As intelligence augmentation allows us to make ourselves smarter, we could always be a step ahead.

By 2030, we'll likely have grown accustomed to a world where sophisticated foresight, detailed analysis and insight, and augmented awareness are commonplace. Our augmentation assistants will handle basic interactions on our behalf, and we'll increasingly see those assistants as extensions of ourselves. The ability to build the future we want is within our grasp.


AR I'm not entirely convinced. I see organized intelligence appearing as organized corporate power that does more than offer us more freedom to twitter our time away. The totalitarian dangers here, however candy coated, are overwhelming. Soon there will be Borg collectives and rebels, and the rebels who stick out too far will be hunted down, until only the Gaiaborg remains. A few years ago I called the Gaiaborg the Lifeball, then I called it the Global Online Dominion. Those of a religious persuasion may call it the extended body of Christ on Earth. Whatever, it will eat us whole and that will be the end of feral humans.