Sep 132011
 

Tablets have a few issues – one of them is that touch typists like me feel quite challenged on a touch-screen keyboard. However, the ever improving speech recognition is gradually eliminating this disadvantage and nowadays I find myself talking to phones and tablets more often than I used to without getting many suspicious looks.

Instead of typing, humans will soon be able to talk to most computing devices, and the line between tablets, smartphones, computers, books, cars, bread makers and washing machines will gradually get very blurry. The switchback to verbal communication may drastically change everything and turn the world upside down one more time.

Ancient Or Young?

I’m the first one in my family who, outages aside, doesn’t remember life without electricity or TV, the first one born in a hospital and the first one used to having a telephone around all the time. Nevertheless, through storytelling from my parents and their parents I’ve learned of an entirely different world, seemingly so vastly distant and yet thanks to them still vivid to me, the world where great storytellers could entice children’s imagination beyond words and where skilled people could teach you things not written in any books.  That world still exists in underdeveloped countries, but I believe that verbal communication will once again become a primary way of communication worldwide and these countries may be able to skip a few steps and instantly slip further into the future.

Ancient Data Vaults Had Legs

Throughout hundreds of thousands of years our species evolved through just a few different ways of knowledge transfer. In the first, the loneliest and the longest stage, there was mainly learning by observation accompanied by inarticulate sounds, screams and body language.

Then through thousands of years we slowly became verbal, developed language and with adoption of the oral tradition we gradually became civilized. Our development has been speeding up exponentially since then.

But although in parallel with language there gradually developed great narrators and poets who could memorize tens of thousands or even millions of lines of oral works, the media (humans themselves) was volatile and fragile. The information was carried over from generation to generation and just like life, it either constantly evolved or disappeared due to uncontrollable factors. Since there were no libraries and information sources were scarce, a great deal was lost in transition.

Editor in Chief

Survival was the most potent and extremely powerful editor, and no one knows what parts of our common knowledge got lost because they either seemed unimportant at the time or because of a sudden death of a person of knowledge without a chance to transfer it to someone else. This way only the crucial parts survived while seemingly unimportant or complex sections got erased from collective memory. The major challenge of our civilization was that the transfer of accumulated knowledge was as strong as the weakest link.

Information Moguls

This is why great narrators and teachers were more appreciated then than today’s best authors combined with the internet, Google, TV and best entertainment centers. Information was scarce and not readily accessible. This is also why the apprentice used to call the teacher “master” – their skills and their future was at their feet and at their mercy. As always, those who controlled the information had the power. Since there was no mass media, every society unit starting from a family, tribe, village, through a state, kingdom or empire had their people of knowledge who served as walking libraries.

Literacy Spread

After many tens of thousands of years people developed literacy. Again, those capable of writing and reading (controlling the information) were considered highly skilled and in high demand, but due to the extremely slow process only the most important material was written, while oral tradition continued to be crucial for the masses.

Then just several hundred years ago Gutenberg changed everything and we gradually became book worms in the best sense of that phrase. This is why most humans are now able to emerse into other worlds, in this case you are now reading my thoughts in the comfy surrounding of your home or office while I’m now writing them in an equally comfortable environment. It’s a different ‘now’ but the message carries over. Reading and writing became a requirement for normal life and no longer a privilege. Books became our long term memory. Human civilization overcame its first major limit and empowered most of its members. The geeks among us may agree that this was the first open source project.

Media And Times Change

Not for long. The information age is rapidly changing the face of our knowledge and the ways it is being conveyed. Learning through classroom lectures is increasingly diminishing, not because there are less courses offered or because they’re more expensive, but because the amount of knowledge transferred by other means is exploding. A growing amount of private and quality lectures and other previously highly precious pieces of information are now widely available worldwide over the internet. Best professors, authors or experts are in high demand and the modern media have exponentially increased their availability to various audiences. Internet, email, Google, YouTube, Twitter, podcasts, Facebook and plethora of other ways of information are available to everybody, however, mostly everything is still written. Not for long.

Long Term Memory Shift

Very little of what needed to be memorized decades, centuries and millenia ago needs to remain in our brains. Our short term memory is equally important as before but our long term memory can give up on remembering number sequences and entire books, because they can be easily accessed in their exact form within a second or so. All we need to remember these days is metadata (data about data – e.g. “what’s inside”, where to find it, how relevant it is, to what data it is related, etc.). This looks scary to those afraid of change but even Albert Einstein said long time ago “never memorize what can be looked up in books”. With current Internet search engines everybody can quickly turn into a genius with photographic memory. The major technology challenge of the day now gets to be how to improve information retrieval so that we can almost instantly and intuitively access relevant information while being engaged in any everyday activity, sort of like it currently happens when we fetch a memory inside our brain. The interface between the brain and databases or the internet has to improve.

Written to Verbal And Beyond

With improving speech recognition on our devices, humanity is about to move back where it originated and the cycle is to be closed, this time on a wholy brave new level. We will switch back to oral/verbal communication but this time our teachers and servants will be helped and multiplied by our abundant devices and computers. My kids are learning to write, but I believe they won’t use this ability much, for they will be dictating most of their commands and messages to their computers, phones, and other devices.  Listening rather than reading is a bit slower, but for most common mortals, writing is about to take a huge productivity boost.

Afraid?

Don’t be. We live in most miraculous times in human history. New inventions and systems have been creating global changes and shifts in the old-fashioned ways of income distribution and production throughout our past, but these changes didn’t kill us – they made us stronger. The words “This invention will induce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it” aren’t coming from some modern “prophet” speaking against Google, but from a Plato’s story told 24 centuries ago about an Egyptian king’s feelings after his god Thoth gave him writing. It seems that, milleniums after we found ways to store our knowledge, we still worry about new inventions seemingly killing general knowledge.

The human race has to overcome the challenges that follow major breakthroughs, but we keep getting better tools to do that. Still, most people prefer not to cope with change, what often creates a fertile ground for outbreaks of all sorts of fundamentalists and fake prophets who (all over again) say these big changes are the signs of the times.

Every major invention that fueled rapid market shifts was at times being presented by some of its opponents as the most horrible instrument of the devil. And yet, the steam engine didn’t leave everybody without work but it brought us cheap transportation and industrial revolution. Electricity didn’t kill many people; instead we got great things like electric lights and easy energy conversion and transfer. Airplanes weren’t used to wipe entire countries off the face of the Earth (although we got close to it a few times), but majority of them today carry humongous amounts of cargo and millions of people worldwide, furthermore increasing prosperity and eliminating poverty.

The big changes are just making those used to old-fashioned jobs very nervous, so we need to calm down the luddites, show them that big shifts like this happened throughout our history and in the long run everybody was better off. Our governments, unable to comprehend, control and predict the changes, need to at least make sure that these big shifts don’t create more widening income gaps and desperately poor and angry people without options like the angry Russians from 1918 or the Middle Eastern suicide bombers from the 2000’s. This is why I support the 99% movement. With wiser tax policies (higher taxes for the wealthy, as proposed by some of our richest and smartest people such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) and the empowerment through information sharing, the humanity will be much better off.

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

This sounds exciting, but the real miracles will start once humans perfect search engines and speed up the interaction between the computer and the human brain by eliminating the need to type or talk to a machine. It sounds scary, but imagine if you had to type or talk to your car to increase speed or to apply brakes – I suppose the cars would travel at a much lower speed. Just like the Internet sped up our searches so that we don’t have to walk to a library and search through an encyclopedia, and moreover just like it made huge amounts of information become easily accessible, this will be another order of magnitude improvement. If such an interface gets perfected, communication will get close to telepathy: if you as a human can use an advanced interface with a computer which is furthermore connected into an enormous database/internet, you can then instantly communicate in pictures, video, text, sound and other media to another such person/computer/institution anywhere in the world. Where will be our limits?  The possibilities are beyond our current recognition. Don’t be afraid. Just seek new beginnings. Something wonderful is happening to Humanity.

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