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What is Next Nature?

With our attempts to cultivate nature, humankind causes the rising of a next nature, which is wild and unpredictable as ever. Wild systems, genetic surprises, autonomous machinery and splendidly beautiful black flowers. Nature changes along with us.

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The NBIC Convergence: When Machines and Matter ‘Have Sex’

The Singularity, as popularized by Ray Kurtzweil, refers to a near term, theoretical time when machine intelligence greatly surpasses our own. At this point we will experience a transition in our culture that poses an event horizon, beyond which future events cannot possibly be predicted or understood. Although Kurtzweil is no better placed than any of us to imagine what ‘The Singularity’ actually involves, he discusses our transition towards this point as ‘technologically enlightened’ humans increasingly upgrade their natural bodies with devices. As our physical substance becomes more technological, he proposes that we become more closely allied with machines rather than other humans. Those that reject the progressive mechanization of the human body are destined to play a secondary, if not vestigial position in the evolution of our species.

A recent episode of the quiz show ‘Jeopardy’ demonstrates our proximity to the Singularity. The Watson computer database defeated two human competitors by accessing information and mechanically ‘ringing’ a buzzer faster than the other contestants. Although this competitive quiz show performance was impressive, it is worthwhile to consider whether Watson would have beaten a human in solving a complex, embodied problem such as riding a bicycle. Machines do not perform in a comparable way to living organisms when presented with challenges that engage with matter. This is a major constraint for the performance of machines. Kurtzweil’s vision relies heavily on the cognitive capacity of machine systems and much less on the material frameworks that support this ‘super-intelligence’. Organic intelligence is coevolved and entwined with materiality, whereas with modern machines, the body is an afterthought – but this is changing.

A new set of technologies, called the nano, bio, info, cogno (NBIC) convergence, promise a platform through which the bottom-up evolution of body and ‘intelligence’ may converge. A National Science Foundation sponsored report has been particularly influential in precipitating a new kind of scientific approach to the NBIC convergence, in the hope that the knowledge transfer resulting from the cross-pollination of these technologies will greatly benefit humanity and industry. Centrally supported funding initiatives are encouraging traditional scientific disciplines to adopt this more openly speculative approach to scientific research in ambitious collaborations of expert exchange.
Hybrid scientific disciplines are emerging from these fertile environments of shared ideas such as ‘morphological computation’, where fresh, forward-looking perspectives are effectively dealing with an empirically untestable future – the traditional strong-hold of science fiction. This has opened up new avenues for further exploration as research groups from non-scientific disciplines share equal stakes in the outcomes of these new fusions. One such example is Hylozoic GroundPhilip Beesley’s groundbreaking architectural installation that seamlessly fuses cybernetics, chemistry, environment and human interaction.

Innovation trends visionary Steve Jurvetson believes that the NBIC convergence is a nexus for “ideas having sex”*. He notes that, to the extent that all good ideas are a combinations of prior ideas, this convergence of media may give rise to a combinatorial explosion of solution spaces that can exploit the interstices between academic disciplines. Jurvetson also argues that this combinatorial exchange is the fountainhead of innovation, which not only creates the economy and explains accelerating change, but also subsumes biological evolution and nurtures a rational optimism for the future. Examples of these new fusions would be digitally ‘gardened’ building facades that house designed ecologies of organisms. These biological substrates would be interwoven with digital sensors, informed by environmental data collection and enhanced with nanotechnology to harvest light and release it as bioluminescence, or produce natural gas, oils, food and even plastics.

The NBIC information singularity is not about machine dominance, but a fusion and convergence of data streams through multiple media in which there are no ‘winners take all’, but instead new ecologies of ‘actants’ **. This kind of ‘singularity’, whose outcome is as impossible to predict as Kurtzweil’s mechanical worldview, would embrace human and non-human as equals in partnership human while extending our influence and presence in the world. These near-future gardens and quasi-augmented ecosystems may seem very strange to us now, but will fully engage our existence and are likely to seem as ‘natural’ as nature itself.

Photo via the New York Times.

*This phrase was coined by Matt Ridley at TEDGlobal 2010.

**Bruno Latour defines ‘actant’ as a source of action that implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of humans in general. Latour, B. (1996)  On Actor Network Theory: A Few Clarifications, Soziale Welt, 47, 4, 369-381

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