Sunday, February 01, 2009

Kevin Kelly - Technology, or the Evolution of Evolution

A cool post from a while back over at The Technium.
The Technium

Technology, or the Evolution of Evolution

When we look at technology we see pipes and blinking lights. But in the cosmic view, technology is the acceleration of evolution.

In the abstract, natural evolution is an exploration of a possibility space. It is a way for an adaptive system – in this case life – to search for new survival forms in the universe of all-possible forms. It tries this or that form, round or long, slow or fast, with legs or with wings. It whips up any design that will keep the game of searching going. Most forms it encounters live only a short time. But over eons the system of life settles on very stable forms – on the planet earth, those stable forms might be tubular guts, plant leaves, bi-lateral symmetry -- which permit life to keep searching for more forms. Each natural innovation which life "discovers" becomes a platform to discover more innovations. In this process, life expands the variety of living forms and its power to keep evolving.

The reason life can keep evolving is that several times along the way it has discovered ways to increase its own evolvability. At the beginning (as in "In the beginning") the space of possible life was very small. The methods life had to adapt, to change, to try stuff, and to find new forms were few. This narrow range of adaptability was similar to crude technology that can't be customized or adapted very far. At the start life had low adaptability or evolvability. But over time, as evolution worked to discover new forms, it also enlarged the suite of techniques it had for searching and changing. One way to think of this is to imagine life on a quest to find all the possible forms. But one or two of those forms are magic meta-forms that give life new powers to expand into a whole new realm to explore for more shapes. Much like a game where you find a door on one level that opens up another whole level that is much more complex, faster, and full of possibilities not present before. In evolution these special meta-portals are techniques, like sexual reproduction, that increase the evolvability of life. In addition to sexual recombination, evolution uncovered several other tricks to increase its evolvability. Horizontal gene swapping between organisms, and a whole suite of control genes (genes that control other genes) are just two ways that the process of learning and adaptation and exploration have been expanded by increasing evolvability.

So as evolution searches the space of possible forms, every once in a while it discovers a form which expands its own possibility space. In this way the process of evolution creates the very space it searches. In other words, if a new species is an answer to the question of how can an organism live, evolution is not only coming up with new answers, it also generates new kinds of questions, and new ways to ask questions.

Of all the tricks that evolution came up for increasing its evolvability none compare to minds. Minds – and not just human minds – bestow on life a greatly accelerated way to learn and adapt. This should not be surprising because minds are built to find answers, and one of the key things to answer might be how to learn better, quicker. If what minds are good for is learning and adaptation, then learning how to learn will accelerate your learning. Even though most of the learning a mind does is not transferred directly into biological evolution, there are several ways in which minds accelerate evolution (see the Baldwin Effect), even in the lower animal kingdom. So the presence of minds in life has increased its evolvability; the discovery of mindness has driven evolution in many new directions while also creating a new territory to explore – the territory of possible minds.

The most recent extension of this expansion is technology. Technology is how human minds explore the space of possibilities. We power our minds via science and technology to make possible things real. More so technology is how our society learns and introduces change. It is almost a cliché to point out that technology has brought as much change on this planet in the last 100 years as life has in the last billion years.

Ray Kurzweil can provide you with dozens of graphs charting the accelerating change brought about by technology in the last 100 years or so. From the speed of computers, the bandwidth of communications, the power of engines, the yield of crops – all are accelerating in performance. Change is this century's middle name.

But meta-change is not about acceleration itself; it is not about faster change. Rather, the acceleration of evolution or increased evolvability is about the change in the nature of change.

Read the whole post.

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