600 million years ago, no one really did anything, ever.

Sponge (600 million BC) The problem is that no one had any nerves. Without nerves, you can’t move, or think, or process information of any kind. So you just had to kind of exist and wait there until you died.

Jellyfish (580 million BC) But then came the jellyfish. The jellyfish was the first animal to figure out that nerves were an obvious thing to make sure you had, and it had the world’s first nervous system—a nerve net. 

The jellyfish’s nerve net allowed it to collect important information from the world around it—like where there were objects, predators, or food—and pass that information along, through a big game of telephone, to all parts of its body. Being able to receive and process information meant that the jellyfish could actually react to changes in its environment in order to increase the odds of life going well, rather than just floating aimlessly and hoping for the best.

A little later, a new animal came around who had an even cooler idea.

Flatworm (550 million BC) The flatworm figured out that you could get a lot more done if there was someone in the nervous system who was in charge of everything—a nervous system boss. The boss lived in the flatworm’s head and had a rule that all nerves in the body had to report any new information directly to him. So instead of arranging themselves in a net shape, the flatworm’s nervous system all revolved around a central highway of messenger nerves that would pass messages back and forth between the boss and everyone else: ‘open mouth to try to get food in it’, ‘wiggle body’.

The flatworm’s boss-highway system was the world’s first central nervous system, and the boss in the flatworm’s head was the world’s first brain.

The idea of a nervous system boss quickly caught on with others, and soon, there were thousands of species on Earth with brains.

As time passed and Earth’s animals started inventing intricate new body systems, the bosses got busier.

Frog (265 million BC) A little while later came the arrival of mammals. For the Millennials of the Animal Kingdom, life was complicated. Yes, their hearts needed to beat and their lungs needed to breathe, but mammals were about a lot more than survival functions — they were in touch with complex feelings like love, anger, and fear.

For the reptilian brain, which had only had to deal with reptiles and other simpler creatures so far, mammals were just…a lot. So a second boss developed in mammals to pair up with the reptilian brain and take care of all of these new needs—the world’s first limbic system.

Rodent (225 million BC) Over the next 100 million years, the lives of mammals grew more and more complex, and one day, the two bosses noticed a new resident in the cockpit with them.

Tree mammal (80 million BC) What appeared to be a random infant was actually the early version of the neocortex, and though he didn’t say much at first, as evolution gave rise to primates and then great apes and then early hominids, this new boss grew from a baby into a child and eventually into a teenager with his own idea of how things should be run.

Hominid (4 million BC) The new boss’s ideas turned out to be really helpful – ‘maybe we should pick up a rock to open up a coconut instead of our fingernails’ – and he became the hominid’s go-to boss for things like tool-making, hunting strategy, and cooperation with other hominids.

Over the next few million years, the new boss grew older and wiser, and his ideas kept getting better. He figured out how to not be naked. He figured out how to control fire. He learned how to make a spear.

But his coolest trick was thinking. He turned each human’s head into a little world of its own, making humans the first animal that could think complex thoughts, reason through decisions, and make long-term plans.

And then, maybe about 100,000 years ago, he came up with a breakthrough.

[Sounds that mean something, e.g. the sound ‘rock’ to point to a rock]

The human brain had advanced to the point where it could understand that even though the sound ‘rock’ was not itself a rock, it could be used as a symbol of a rock—it was a sound that referred to a rock. The early human had invented language.

Soon there were words for all kinds of things, and by 50,000 BC, humans were speaking in full, complex language with each other.

The neocortex had turned humans into magicians. Not only had he made the human head a wondrous internal ocean of complex thoughts, his latest breakthrough had found a way to translate those thoughts into a symbolic set of sounds and send them vibrating through the air into the heads of other humans, who could then decode the sounds and absorb the embedded idea into their own internal thought oceans. The human neocortex had been thinking about things for a long time—and he finally had someone to talk about it all with.

A neocortex party ensued. Neocortexes—fine—neocortices shared everything with each other—stories from their past, funny jokes they had thought of, opinions they had formed, plans for the future.

But most useful was sharing what they had learned. If one human learned through trial and error that a certain type of berry led to 48 hours of your life being run by diarrhea, they could use language to share the hard-earned lesson with the rest of their tribe, like photocopying the lesson and handing it to everyone else. Tribe members would then use language to pass along that lesson to their children, and their children would pass it to their own children. Rather than the same mistake being made again and again by many different people, one person’s “stay away from that berry” wisdom could travel through space and time to protect everyone else from having their bad experience.

The same thing would happen when one human figured out a new clever trick. One unusually-intelligent hunter particularly attuned to both star constellations and the annual migration patterns of wildebeest, herds could share a system he devised that used the night sky to determine exactly how many days remained until the herd would return. Even though very few hunters would have been able to come up with that system on their own, through word-of-mouth, all future hunters in the tribe would now benefit from the ingenuity of one ancestor, with that one hunter’s crowning discovery serving as every future hunter’s starting point of knowledge.

And let’s say this knowledge advancement makes the hunting season more efficient, which gives tribe members more time to work on their weapons—which allows one extra-clever hunter a few generations later to discover a method for making lighter, denser spears that can be thrown more accurately. And just like that, every present and future hunter in the tribe hunts with a more effective spear.

Language allows the best epiphanies of the very smartest people, through the generations, to accumulate into a little collective tower of tribal knowledge—a ‘greatest hits’ of their ancestors’ best aha! moments. Every new generation has this knowledge tower installed in their heads as their starting point in life, leading them to new, even better discoveries that build on what their ancestors learned, as the tribe’s knowledge continues to grow bigger and wiser. Language is the difference between small knowledge growth and huge knowledge growth learned by generations.

The major trajectory upgrade happens for two reasons. Each generation can learn a lot more new things when they can talk to each other, compare notes, and combine their individual learnings. And each generation can successfully pass a higher percentage of their learnings on to the next generation, so knowledge sticks better through time.

Knowledge, when shared, becomes like a grand, collective, inter-generational collaboration. Hundreds of generations later, what started as a pro tip about a certain berry to avoid has become an intricate system of planting long rows of the stomach-friendly berry bushes and harvesting them annually. The initial stroke of genius about wildebeest migrations has turned into a system of goat domestication. The spear innovation, through hundreds of incremental tweaks over tens of thousands of years, has become the bow and arrow.

Language gives a group of humans a collective intelligence far greater than individual human intelligence and allows each human to benefit from the collective intelligence as if he came up with it all himself. We think of the bow and arrow as a primitive technology, but raise Einstein in the woods with no existing knowledge and tell him to come up with the best hunting device he can, and he won’t be nearly intelligent or skilled or knowledgeable enough to invent the bow and arrow. Only a collective human effort can pull that off.

Being able to speak to each other also allowed humans to form complex social structures which, along with advanced technologies like farming and animal domestication, led tribes over time to begin to settle into permanent locations and merge into organized super-tribes. When this happened, each tribe’s tower of accumulated knowledge could be shared with the larger super-tribe, forming a super-tower. Mass cooperation raised the quality of life for everyone, and by 10,000 BC, the first cities had formed.

According to Wikipedia, there’s something called Metcalfe’s law, which states that ‘the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.’ And they include a little chart of old telephones.

But the same idea applies to people. Two people can have one conversation. Three people have four unique conversation groups (three different two-person conversations and a fourth conversation between all three as a group). Five people have 26. Twenty people have 1,048,555.

So not only did the members of a city benefit from a huge knowledge tower as a foundation, but Metcalfe’s law means that the number of conversation possibilities now skyrocketed to an unprecedented amount of variety. More conversations meant more ideas bumping up against each other, which led to many more discoveries clicking together, and the pace of innovation soared.

Humans soon mastered agriculture, which freed many people up to think about all kinds of other ideas, and it wasn’t long before they stumbled upon a new, giant breakthrough: writing.

Historians think humans first started writing things down about 5 – 6,000 years ago. Up until that point, the collective knowledge tower was stored only in a network of people’s memories and accessed only through livestream word-of-mouth communication. This system worked in small tribes, but with a vastly larger body of knowledge shared among a vastly larger group of people, memories alone would have had a hard time supporting it all, and most of it would have ended up lost.

If language let humans send a thought from one brain to another, writing let them stick a thought onto a physical object, like a stone, where it could live forever. When people began writing on thin sheets of parchment or paper, huge fields of knowledge that would take weeks to be conveyed by word of mouth could be compressed into a book or a scroll you could hold in your hand. The human collective knowledge tower now lived in physical form, neatly organized on the shelves of city libraries and universities.

These shelves became humanity’s grand instruction manual on everything. They guided humanity toward new inventions and discoveries, and those would in turn become new books on the shelves, as the grand instruction manual built upon itself. The manual taught us the intricacies of trade and currency, of shipbuilding and architecture, of medicine and astronomy. Each generation began life with a higher floor of knowledge and technology than the last, and progress continued to accelerate.

But painstakingly handwritten books were treated like treasures, and likely only accessible to the extreme elite (in the mid 15th century, there were only 30.000 books in all of Europe). And then came another breakthrough: the printing press.

In the 15th century, the beardy Johannes Gutenberg came up with a way to create multiple identical copies of the same book, much more quickly and cheaply than ever before. (Or, more accurately, when Gutenberg was born, humanity had already figured out the first 95% of how to invent the printing press, and Gutenberg, with that knowledge as his starting point, invented the last 5%.) (Oh, also, Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press, the Chinese did a bunch of centuries earlier. Pretty reliable rule is that everything you think was invented somewhere other than China was probably actually invented in China.)

I found a video explaining how Gutenberg’s press worked and was surprised to find myself unimpressed. I always assumed Gutenberg had made some genius machine, but it turns out he just created a bunch of stamps of letters and punctuation and manually arranged them as the page of a book and then put ink on them and pressed a piece of paper onto the letters, and that was one book page. While he had the letters all set up for that page, he’d make a bunch of copies. Then he’d spend forever manually rearranging the stamps (this is the “movable type” part) into the next page, and then do a bunch of copies of that. His first project was 180 copies of the Bible, which took him and his employees two years. That‘s Gutenberg’s thing? A bunch of stamps? I feel like I could have come up with that pretty easily. Not really clear why it took humanity 5,000 years to go from figuring out how to write to creating a bunch of manual stamps. I guess it’s not that I’m unimpressed with Gutenberg—I’m neutral on Gutenberg, he’s fine—it’s that I’m unimpressed with everyone else.

Anyway, despite how disappointing Gutenberg’s press turned out to be, it was a huge leap forward for humanity’s ability to spread information. Over the coming centuries, printing technology rapidly improved, bringing the number of pages a machine could print in an hour from about 25 in Gutenberg’s time4 up 100-fold to 2,400 by the early 19th century.

Mass-produced books allowed information to spread like wildfire, and with books being made increasingly affordable, no longer was education an elite privilege—millions now had access to books, and literacy rates shot upwards. One person’s thoughts could now reach millions of people. The era of mass communication had begun.

The avalanche of books allowed knowledge to transcend borders, as the world’s regional knowledge towers finally merged into one species-wide knowledge tower that stretched into the stratosphere.

The better we could communicate on a mass scale, the more our species began to function like a single organism, with humanity’s collective knowledge tower as its brain and each individual human brain like a nerve or a muscle fiber in its body. With the era of mass communication upon us, the collective human organism—the Human Colossus—rose into existence.

With the entire body of collective human knowledge in its brain, the Human Colossus began inventing things no human could have dreamed of inventing on their own—things that would have seemed like absurd science fiction to people only a few generations before.

It turned our ox-drawn carts into speedy locomotives and our horse-and-buggies into shiny metal cars. It turned our lanterns into lightbulbs and written letters into telephone calls and factory workers into industrial machines. It sent us soaring through the skies and out into space. It redefined the meaning of “mass communication” by giving us radio and TV, opening up a world where a thought in someone’s head could be beamed instantly into the brains of a billion people.

If an individual human’s core motivation is to pass its genes on, which keeps the species going, the forces of macroeconomics make the Human Colossus’s core motivation to create value, which means it tends to want to invent newer and better technology. Every time it does that, it becomes an even better inventor, which means it can invent new stuff even faster.

And around the middle of the 20th century, the Human Colossus began working on its most ambitious invention yet.

The Colossus had figured out a long time ago that the best way to create value was to invent value-creating machines. Machines were better than humans at doing many kinds of work, which generated a flood of new resources that could be put towards value creation. Perhaps even more importantly, machine labor freed up huge portions of human time and energy—i.e. huge portions of the Colossus itself—to focus on innovation. It had already outsourced the work of our arms to factory machines and the work of our legs to driving machines, and it had done so through the power of its brain—now what if, somehow, it could outsource the work of the brain itself to a machine?

The first digital computers sprung up in the 1940s.

One kind of brain labor computers could do was the work of information storage—they were remembering machines. But we already knew how to outsource our memories using books, just like we had been outsourcing our leg labor to horses long before cars provided a far better solution. Computers were simply a memory-outsourcing upgrade.

Information-processing was a different story—a type of brain labor we had never figured out how to outsource. The Human Colossus had always had to do all of its own computing. Computers changed that.

Factory machines allowed us to outsource a physical process—we put a material in, the machines physically processed it and spit out the results. Computers could do the same thing for information processing. A software program was like a factory machine for information processes.

These new information-storage/organizing/processing machines proved to be useful. Computers began to play a central role in the day-to-day operation of companies and governments. By the late 1980s, it was common for individual people to own their own personal brain assistant.

Then came another leap.

In the early 90s, we taught millions of isolated machine-brains how to communicate with one another. They formed a worldwide computer network, and a new giant was born—the Computer Colossus.

The Computer Colossus and the great network it formed were like popeye spinach for the Human Colossus.

If individual human brains are the nerves and muscle fibers of the Human Colossus, the internet gave the giant its first legit nervous system. Each of its nodes was now interconnected to all of its other nodes, and information could travel through the system with light speed. This made the Human Colossus a faster, more fluid thinker.

The internet gave billions of humans instant, free, easily-searchable access to the entire human knowledge tower (which by now stretched past the moon). This made the Human Colossus a smarter, faster learner.

And if individual computers had served as brain extensions for individual people, companies, or governments, the Computer Colossus was a brain extension for the entire Human Colossus itself.

With its first real nervous system, an upgraded brain, and a powerful new tool, the Human Colossus took inventing to a whole new level—and noticing how useful its new computer friend was, it focused a large portion of its efforts on advancing computer technology.

It figured out how to make computers faster and cheaper. It made internet faster and wireless. It made computing chips smaller and smaller until there was a powerful computer in everyone’s pocket.

Each innovation was like a new truckload of spinach for the Human Colossus.

But today, the Human Colossus has its eyes set on an even bigger idea than more spinach. Computers have been a game-changer, allowing humanity to outsource many of its brain-related tasks and better function as a single organism. But there’s one kind of brain labor computers still can’t quite do. Thinking.

Computers can compute and organize and run complex software—software that can even learn on its own. But they can’t think in the way humans can. The Human Colossus knows that everything it’s built has originated with its ability to reason creatively and independently—and it knows that the ultimate brain extension tool would be one that can really, actually, legitimately think. It has no idea what it will be like when the Computer Colossus can think for itself—when it one day opens its eyes and becomes a real colossus—but with its core goal to create value and push technology to its limits, the Human Colossus is determined to find out.

We’ll come back here in a bit. First, we have some learning to do.

As we’ve discussed before, knowledge works like a tree. If you try to learn a branch or a leaf of a topic before you have a solid tree trunk foundation of understanding in your head, it won’t work. The branches and leaves will have nothing to stick to, so they’ll fall right out of your head.

We’ve established that Elon Musk wants to build a wizard hat for the brain, and understanding why he wants to do that is the key to understanding Neuralink—and to understanding what our future might actually be like.

But none of that will make much sense until we really get into the truly mind-blowing concept of what a wizard hat is, what it might be like to wear one, and how we get there from where we are today.

The foundation for that discussion is an understanding of what brain-machine interfaces are, how they work, and where the technology is today.

Finally, BMIs themselves are just a larger branch—not the tree’s trunk. In order to really understand BMIs and how they work, we need to understand the brain. Getting how the brain works is our tree trunk.

stem: tim urban
titel: the human colossus, de magische toekomst van het brein
perspectief: analyzing elon musk, neuralink
bron: wait but why (2017)