There are moments in history that redefine the human experience. Old ways of thinking are upended, the traditions of yesteryear are turned on their heads, and radical new ideas are not just entertained by a select few, but embraced by the masses. These are periods when societies pivot away from the familiar and comfortable and welcome the future. The famed philosopher and sociologist Karl Jaspers described these periods as Axial Ages.
Jaspers specifically identified the definitive Axial Age as spanning between 800-200 B.C., during which time Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates all developed transformative philosophical models that fundamentally altered the Indian, Chinese, and European civilizations, respectively. What made this period of history so unique was not simply new realizations, but their near-concurrent emergence across different civilizations and continents by individuals who had no contact with one another. The Axial Age, according to Jaspers, was the pivotal age during which “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently and these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.”
We are now living through a new Axial Age. This time, however, its emergence is defined by exponential technological progress driven by the proliferation of a mass digital communications network that is uniting people and ideas across the globe. In “Why Software is Eating the World,” Marc Andreessen identifies the software industry as the major domo contributing to the betterment of our economic condition:
Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.
But it’s not just the Internet driving this new age.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee refer to these revolutionary times as the Second Machine Age, named after their eponymously titled work. Their basic thesis is that the development of digital age technologies like robotics, 3D printing, image sensing, and pattern recognition “had been frustratingly slow for a long time, and where the best thinking often led to the conclusion that it wouldn’t speed up. But then digital progress became sudden after being gradual for so long.” Progress isn’t simply increasing linearly, it’s exploding exponentially.
The combinatorial power of developments in robotics and automation as well as digital communications platforms will continue transforming our global society and the economy in profound ways, many of which are as-of-yet unknowable. Take, for example, the potential for groundbreaking advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) research. As Nick Bostrom notes in his recent book Superintelligence, research into AI “is quite possibly the most important and most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced. And—whether we succeed or fail—it is probably the last challenge we will ever face.”
That’s quite a powerful, and potentially frightening, statement; but it’s also notable, as the best case scenarios of such developments could very easily result in a world of even more abundance and prosperity than we’ve ever known. Already, advances in machine-learning algorithms are contributing far-reaching benefits to a wide range of industries: everything from front desk concierge services to industrial logistics analyses, warehouse manufacturing automation to social media image identification.
Robots, automation, decentralized digital communications, additive manufacturing, evolutionary leaps in advanced materials science, genomics, artificial intelligence—our current era is being ever more defined by the emergence of massively disruptive and life-altering technologies. These mutually-reinforcing cycles of development are anfractuous feedback loops, each feeding the evolution of the others.
The Internet connects more and more human minds to one another every day, uniting research and development across the globe and crowdsourcing the study, and funding, of scientific endeavors via data sets uploaded to cloud computing servers. The cutting edge development of portable and personalized genomic analysis could help detect and combat the spread of diseases before developing into epidemics, while contributing to more personalized and effective treatments for individuals suffering from cancer, muscular sclerosis, and any number of debilitating afflictions.
The information gleaned from those analyses can then be fed back into the global digital communications network, re-analyzed by advanced AI to find new connections between various factors, and thereby refocus researchers’ attentions towards previously unconsidered approaches to research. This virtuous cycle of experimentation, application, and learning will only continue to become more democratized, efficient, and beneficially transformative for society.
It’s reasonable to suppose that any person believes the time during which he or she is alive is an age of particular importance and achievement. The difference between our earlier ancestors and us, however, is that we see the rapid influx of change occurring in our very midst. Since the dawn of the Internet revolution, many of these changes have occurred more rapidly than ever before in human history; and the data bears it out, even if our own empirical observations fall short of seeing the spectacular degree of technological progress all around us.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee portend that the transformative effect of this nascent technological Axial Age will be a generation that:
will likely have the good fortune to experience two of the most amazing events in history: the creation of true machine intelligence and the connection of all humans via a common digital network, transforming the planet’s economics. Innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, tinkerers, and many other types of geeks will take advantage of this cornucopia to build technologies that astonish us, delight us, and work for us. Over and over again, they’ll show how right Arthur C. Clarke was when he observed that a sufficiently advanced technology can be indistinguishable from magic.
We are indeed living through a pivotal age of change. This is a new Axial Age of technological progress. And if the vision Brynjolfsson and McAfee present to us is one such possible future, then as Marc Andreessen once said: “The problem seems unlikely to be that we’ll get there too fast. The problem seems likely to be that we’ll get there too slow.”