Op-Ed:

AI, The Future Origins of Us

Human Evolution is the Mother of All Wellness Frameworks

Artificial Intelligence and technologies such as robotics and automation are permeating our world with no signs of letting up. How are these impacting our evolution, environment, health and wellbeing as workers? Will we need to make shifts in our brains to collaborate and integrate our lives and workplaces with AI?

The answer is an emphatic YES!

Through these transitions, an evolutionary perspective is valuable to help us see where we come from and who we are, as human evolution is the mother of all wellness frameworks.

“Knowledge of our past helps us to inform, envision and plan the future.”

AI aspires to evolve new systems and environments, to equip humans with new interfaces, roles and identities. There is a clear relationship between our past adaptations and future wellbeing – in our bodies, our communities and our work lives.

Looking Backwards Better

Let us begin with our past: What do we know? Paleoanthropology seeks to understand the development of anatomically modern humans, but researchers have relatively few fossils of our Homo genus ancestors. In 1984 – not long ago, in the pre-digital world – Kamoya Kimeu discovered in Kenya the most complete early human skeleton ever found, Turkana Boy, also known as Nariokotome Boy, a youth who lived 1.5 million years earlier. Researchers did their best to coax secrets from his past.

The ensuing half-century Digital Revolution brought enhanced analytic capabilities, knowledge sharing and more. CAT-scans, DNA analysis and other techniques began yielding new insights into how humans evolved, created tools, developed technologies, transported materials, lived and worked. Such new technologies are simultaneously making huge advances in modern wellness. The Human Genome Project (HGP) is the world's largest collaborative biological project, which seeks to map the DNA and all the genes of our species. This is an achievement with immense potential benefits to bridge understanding of human evolution, create new medicines, combat viruses, fight cancer, advance the rapidly growing field of genomics, contribute to all aspects of wellness and do infinitely more.

Faster Forward to the New Future Origins of Us

Today we stand on the threshold of a Fourth Industrial Revolution 1, a powerful technological renaissance born of innovations like smart technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), satellite data, drone images, AI, robotics and more. This is fueling immense data sets, image storage, information processing and sharing.

In February 2021, the United Nations convened its Science-Policy-Business Forum on the Environment, Integrated Solutions #ForNature, which promotes artificial intelligence and data analytics like the FarmWeather app to give smallholder farmers in developing countries access to smartphone satellite hyperlocal weather forecasting and collaborative data. This information helps the farmers to 'predict the earth's future,' more reliably manage their food crops, support families and communities, work more effectively and promote wellness and wellbeing. This data-sharing approach stands to markedly improve productivity in the workplace, not to mention benefits programs, office design and management techniques.

As this vast, complex and powerful array of new technologies expands, how will we, modern Homo sapiens, adapt?

Fast.

The New Prometheus

Language gives a graphic example of our ability to adapt to new technologies with great speed. Thirty years ago, our species used analogue text and words on paper as primary methods to record and share information. Within one generation we evolved to using smartphones and digitally rich languagescapes. People of all ages worldwide are becoming fluent communicating with graphics, film, virtual reality and interactive experiences.

The deep human need for connection in tandem with evolving technology leads us to new forms of expression. This is clearly demonstrated on social media platforms where we witness immense human appetite for shared digital social fabrics with family, colleagues, peers, friends and more. There is also ongoing desire for science-based understanding of lineage, such as services for genealogy research and DNA heritage. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs find resonance in the signage of digital emoji-icons.

“AI, robotics and related technologies will accelerate, augment and extend a likely abundance of transformations in humanity.”

Humans Co-Evolve with our Workplaces and Tools

How have seven billion humans been able to globalize from the tropics to the Arctic? Co-evolution. For millions of years, human ancestors expanded around the globe evolving through trial and error with successes and failures. Neanderthals were ironically ‘bred into extinction’ by climatic change, disease or a combination of these factors and were replaced by early European modern humans. Organizations seeking to use wellness to improve results must grasp that evolution is never perfect; it is a robust, dynamic process that can include experimentation, errors and failures, yet on balance still has positive outcomes.

Our ancestors learned to control fire half a million years ago. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham describes how fire was not simply a valuable ‘external tool’ but it shaped our evolution 2.

Fire is useful in countless ways, from defense against predators to cooking food. Cooking moves part of digestion outside the body, so we get more energy more efficiently. Cartoons often depict ‘man the hunter’ chasing animals to feed families, but hunters were not always successful. Women were digging and cooking tubers as reliable food mainstays. This omnivorous diet is consistent with the development of modern human omnivore teeth. The cumulative extra energy retained by eating cooked food enabled humans to support bigger families and an expanding brain. All thanks to a single new tool: fire.

Benefits of Bigger Brain: Shakespeare & Co.

The idea that humans need larger brains simply to hunt doesn’t seem likely: lions and dogs are cooperative hunters yet neither have massive brains. And a larger brain requires more nutrition, so why is it an evolutionary asset?

It’s worth focusing on a key human aspect: interaction. Research of primate groups and other animal groups’ complexity shows links between group size, complexity and brain size. Humans have big social groups and complex social networks.

Biological anthropologist Alice Roberts speculates that the benefits of socializing drove selection for massive brain size 3. She states that we're good at keeping track of people in social groups, constantly assessing what they're doing and their intentions. We see this in chimpanzee societies’ political interactions, and we humans do it in daily life, keeping track of multiple people in complex relations. According to Roberts, perhaps Shakespeare’s plays are so successful because they resonate with the complexity of people knowing things about other people.

When our big brains come together in groups, more is going on than just politics: we're able to bring ideas together, express abstract concepts from deep in the recesses of our minds, share them with each other, build on them and create culture.

Capacity for awareness of interactions and sharing ideas also probably underlies our long lives. Women live beyond reproductive years. It's odd for an animal to finish reproducing then live many more decades. As a plausible explanation: elderly people are repositories of ideas, who share valuable information. Idea and culture sharing can occur as part of activities with group value, such as child-rearing or water carrying. There is a cascade of potential positive feedback benefits.

Such insights have direct and indirect bearing on how we think about wellness and our need to evolve with AI.

Is AI the Current Evolutionary Revolution?

Absolutely.

“Technologies that we create clearly do not reside entirely outside us. We co-evolve with them.”

They shape our teeth, brains, how we move and work, our interactions, the length of our lives and the forms of our societies. AI, robotics and related technologies will continue profoundly impacting our lives and workplaces.

Seventy years ago, in 1958, key creator of the digital computer John von Neumann began discussing accelerating technology impacts on humans, and he articulated a concept of singularity: a hypothetical point where technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization.

Such changes are happening fast. Mind-controlled robotics have reached proof of concept. In April 2021, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s brain-chip startup, Neuralink, released images of a monkey playing a video game called Mind Pong after getting implants of a new technology with chips embedded on each side of its brain 4. The monkey was trained to move a joystick and receive a food reward for points scored. The joystick was then unplugged but the monkey could continue to control the game simply by thinking about moving his hand. The monkey scored points faster and more efficiently by simply using its brain. Musk claimed this will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs 5. The implications for human-machine co-evolution, physical wellness and workplace productivity are enormous.

We Will Need New Ways of Thinking, Communicating and Training

Our ancestors got help from fire and in return co-evolved bigger brains, longer lives, society and culture. Our evolutionary selves have shown that we can adopt new technologies, evolve, survive and thrive. Fast forward to our modern rapidly transforming ecosystem. In the face of such fast-changing challenges, it would be naïve to imagine anyone can provide fixed one-size-fits-all instructions on exactly how to proceed. However, beyond any doubt, attention to wellbeing will be an increasingly important aspect of any organization seriously seeking productive and harmonious ways to navigate this inevitable rapidly oncoming transition. With that in mind, it is worth examining each topic – new ways of thinking, communicating and training – in relation to each organization’s specific ecosystem, needs and goals.

Picture of Theodore Gering

Theodore Gering

Theodore Gering studied evolutionary biology at Harvard under Stephen Jay Gould and draws on that basis to develop digital innovations in inter-sectoral cooperation, cross-platform and cross-border cooperation. Partners include Microsoft, IBM, the World Bank, USAID, UN organizations, Public Private Partnerships and not-for-profit. He lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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