The Growth of Knowledge


Knowledge is the engine that drives human development – and it has been throughout history. Knowledge expanded in the hunter-gatherer days with the invention of fire. In those days, a human obtained all its food by foraging. Although the source of food did not change, fire allowed humans to cook food and consume more calories. The human brain expanded with this caloric increase, and soon we invented language – the first in a series of innovations that drove the growth of knowledge.

We invented agriculture on the strength of this growth – and humanity experienced its first true Tipping Point: a fundamental change in the nature of being human. We shifted from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society: a society where the economy is based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. This tip drove significant change. For one, hunter-gatherers were nomads in constant search of food; with the shift to agriculture, humans settled and cities were born. Soon, humanity had the means to create wealth, to oppress by withholding food, to own land, to create a ruling class, and to divide labor.  For the first time in human history, inequality was a part of society. The lack of property made ancient hunter-gatherers more egalitarian than any subsequent society. As property multiplied, inequality grew. As we gained ownership of land, animals, plants, and tools, rigid hierarchical societies emerged, and small elites monopolized most wealth and power for generations. Along the way, money, the wheel, and writing were invented.

With the invention of writing, our knowledge expanded once again. This new-found ability to capture and share knowledge ushered in another period of innovation; including what some have called the most influential invention in human history: the printing press in the 15th century. By ushering in the age of mass communication and enabling a scientific revolution, the structure of society was permanently altered. The age of Enlightenment followed: an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century and threatened the power of political and religious authorities. When the steam engine was invented in the 18th century, knowledge scaled rapidly. Beyond the impact on transport and production, perhaps the bigger impact was on the massive knowledge-fueled innovation that followed. An MIT study found the steam engine to be the most Impactful Innovation in human history. When it combined with the printing press, the world experienced its most prolific period of knowledge development and sharing. A steam-powered printing press revolutionized the print industry and improved the literacy rate throughout the western hemisphere. As a result, the world tipped for the second time – this time to the Industrial Age.

The First Two Tipping Points

The first two tipping points: Society has only experienced what we see coming twice in all of human history: A societal shift from one of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture, and a societal shift from agriculture to the industrial age.

The resulting explosion of knowledge ushered in the Industrial Revolutions and what some have called a very Special Century: from 1870 to 1970. The inventions of this period established the modern era and set the current standard of living in the western world. Electricity, running water, sanitation, antibiotics, refrigeration, advances in the social contract, and many more innovations were at the heart of this special time in history. In the latter stages of the third industrial revolution, the Internet connected society. To this point, the world had never experienced the ability to seamlessly share knowledge, ideas, capabilities and more. Where Globalization 1.0 emerged from a reduction in the cost of transport, Globalization 2.0 resulted from a reduction in the cost of sharing knowledge. This is where the seeds of the next tipping point were sown.

Artificial intelligence takes the knowledge explosion to its pinnacle. Combined with machines and biotechnology, this tipping point is poised to alter yet again what it means to be human. The world could potentially tip towards an automated and transhuman society. A transhuman is a being that resembles a human in most respects but who has powers and abilities beyond those of standard humans. This emerging third radical change is driven by the overwhelming automation of labor, the reinvention of traditional wage-earning employment, and the convergence of humans and machines. Slowing labor force growth will fuel an automation-enabling infusion of capital over the next 10 to 20 years. Once the first companies automate, others are likely to follow to stay competitive.

At the farthest end of the spectrum is the potential for conscious machines and the ultimate elimination of death (radical life extension on the Future Scenario curve). Biologists continue to unlock the mysteries of the brain and human feelings. At the same time technology gives us unprecedented capability. When these two phenomena’s merge, the possibility exists for machines to monitor and understand our feelings better than we can ourselves. Authority could then shift from humans to machines, and biological inequality might stand along-side economic inequality. Should this play out, the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions.

The Third Tipping Point

The third tipping point: enabled by our connections, AI, Machines and Biotechnology, humanity may tip for the third time

However, when viewed through the lens of optimism, every tipping point has advanced our human development. Although world events today might have us feeling otherwise, as a human family, we have never lived in better times. The challenge for society is to ensure that history repeats itself; that the innovation on the horizon once again advances our human development. To architect this advancement, Ethics must increasingly dominate our discourse over the next two decades, and accelerated learning and dialog must be embraced by all. We must take part in creating our emerging future. It is therefore incumbent upon us to learn as much as possible about these possible futures.

The common denominator throughout history has been the growth of knowledge. Some believe that an ever-accelerating knowledge explosion will produce too many powers of too great a scale for us to successfully manage (dystopian). While humanity has never experienced the current and expected growth of knowledge – it is not clear (to me anyway) – that history can’t repeat itself.

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