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.
Complexity and Evolving Synthetic Soil
Twenty-first century society draws from a world that is less determined by objects and increasingly shaped by connectivity. The clear either/or distinctions that formerly informed experience are being replaced by a much more fluid understanding of the world. Identity is not fixed, but shaped by networks where people and ‘things’ can coherently exist in many states. This ‘complex systems’* view extends to the characterization of nature, which is made up of many interacting bodies. Some of these are human, others living and many other participating agencies that are dynamic, yet are not thought of as being alive. Yet the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms represent different kinds of organizing networks that are entwined and constitute our living world.
Where Cars are Born
French photographer Stéphane Couturier provides us with an intimate peek inside the womb of a Toyota car factory north of Paris, France. The highly abstract photos of car parts, workers and machines capture the complexity, vitality, serene precision and harmony involved in the car production process.
Can Life Be a Technology?
In 2009 the Initiative for Science, Society and Policy coined the phrase ‘living technology’  to draw attention to a group of emerging technologies that are useful because they share some of the fundamental properties of living systems. The technologies fell short of being fully ‘alive’ yet they possessed at least some unique characteristics that are usually associated with ‘life’: Self-assembly, self-organization, metabolism, growth and division, purposeful action, adaptive complexity, evolution, and intelligence. Examples of this new field of technology include synthetic biology, attempts to make living systems from scratch in the laboratory , ICT systems exhibiting collective and swarm intelligence and robot companions.
‘Living technology’ may be an oxymoron, yet despite its innate contradictions, it does not propose an empirical measurement of the ‘aliveness’ or ‘usefulness’ of the systems it represents. Rather the term implies a fundamental change in the way we engage with our world. Indeed, the idea of living technology embodies a complex, non-mechanical approach to the process of problem-solving, which frames the expectations of its performance.
Internet Traffic is now 51% Non-Human
So you thought the Internet was made by and for people? Think again. A study by Incapsula, a provider of cloud-based security for web sites (mind you where this data comes from), concludes that 51% of all Internet traffic is generated by non-human sources such as hacking software, scrapers and automated spam mechanisms. While 20% of the 51% non-human traffic is’ good’, the 31% majority of this non-human traffic is potentially malicious.
Nature Ludens: The Natural World at Play
An ingenious Russian crow that used a lid as a snowboard to slide down a snowy roof persuaded millions of YouTube viewers that animals are not merely beasts of burden – they also want to have fun. Indeed, the natural world appears to be teeming with creatures enjoying themselves in all kinds of different ways, and wildlife experts even claim that bonobos and dolphins have sex for fun.
But how can we know this is the case? Aren’t we really just projecting our human values on to animals? After all, moods are subjective, so it’s hard enough for humans to communicate clearly enough to each other, even when they share the same language – let alone try to figure out what another species might be feeling. So, to keep things simple and empirically testable, the kinds of scientific experiments that have established the ‘feelings’ of animals have focused on responses to stimuli in which cause and effect are not at all complicated such as withdrawal from pain .
Unsurprisingly, this has produced a very limited model of scientifically ‘proven’ animal behaviour, since there are still no clearly identifiable behavioural markers of conscious experience that don’t involve language. We still don’t know how to unequivocally prove what animals may be thinking. We can only claim that creatures such as these fox cubs playing on a trampoline appear to be having fun, since we cannot be objective about what we observe. However, the work of philosophers of science such as Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin and Patrick Heelan, among many others, questions the long-held view that scientific data are absolutely objective.
Sand Engine Reinforces Dutch Coastline
Now here is an hands-on example of ‘guided growth‘ as a way to steer complex systems.
Part of the Dutch coastline is currently being reinforced by creating a ‘sand engine’. This involves depositing 21.5 million cubic meters of sand in the shape of a hook extending from the coast near Ter Heijde. The sand is expected to be spread along the provincial coastline by the natural motion of wind, waves and currents. Ultimately the coast is expected to be broader and safer.