If I were a time traveller from the future who came to 27th July 2016, I’d let you in on a secret from the future. Who is the author?—that’s a question that flags someone who lived in an archaic era—it is the kind of question that in the future will make people smile. I’d like to explain why it makes us smile, and why, once you understand what is going on around you, it may bring a smile to your face as well.
The burden is on me to make the case. On thousands of items flashing through my Twitter timeline a couple of days ago there was a reference to a scientific paper on the Higgs that listed five thousand one hundred and fifty-four authors. That’s not a mistake. That is a number 5 followed by a three-digit number, or to be precise: 5,154. There are, according to Peter Murray-Rust at the University of Cambridge, 10,000 new scientific papers every day.
Do the math. Think of the implications for the future as we have no choice but to improve machine capacity to process the deluge of information looking for patterns. Whether the pattern has utility is another issue. But machines will, over time, increase their cognitive range and long term it would be foolish to believe they can’t rise to the level of making predictions and theories about the patterns.
Where does that leave the ‘author’ as we have used that term for thousands of years?
I was a university professor. I had colleagues across my own country and others in other parts of the world. But the number was a rounding off error compared with the number listed on the Higgs paper. So what you say, another boring scientific paper that probably only five thousand people in the world understand, and if they are all authors isn’t that a kind of wefie (group selfie for those who don’t know what it is) or self-published venture?
It’s amusing until you reflect on what it means to organize, monitor, supervise five thousand people who have some role to play in the design, research, modeling, testing, reporting and examining the results. Without computers, the Internet and advanced technology, including artificial information agents, none of this would be possible. What this means is, scientists have discovered something even more important than the Higgs—they found a way to scale scientific research and experimentation beyond anything imaginable in the past.
We have embarked on a huge scaling co-operation and collaborative venture. The volume of papers and the numbers of people working on them will touch every theoretical complex domain of science. All the balls have been tossed in the air: psychology, medicine, health care, economics, biology, quantum physics, robotics, and artificial intelligence. We exceeded what we can do and have brought in machines to juggle millions of balls. It’s a different circus. Experts are no longer constrained by physical boundaries or to the corridors of their own university, think-tank, government unit, university or industry.
We’ve been freed of the necessity of hiring a small stadium to contain five thousand colleagues working on a joint research project. Everyone is connected in the network without a physical presence being required. The disruptions are great for science but they don’t stop in the lab—they continue to undermine and destroy the fabric of the existing political and economic system, the way they are staffed, selected, organized and how they input and output information.
As AI systems are advancing in capacity and utility, the process of collecting, processing, storing, and analyzing information will create a substantial competitive advantage over the smaller, less funded competition. In Darwin terms the most intelligent, capable and alert animal survives to reproduce. We are in the midst of witnessing an extinction event for our political institution. We are in the long term process of weaning ourselves from the old myths of individual genius, from a system that recognized at most three people in any one category could share the Nobel Prize. A Nobel split five thousand ways is about $200 each, a nice meal.
The Higgs paper is a milestone. The number of authors alerts us that we are out of synch with the numbers, ways, and means to create large networks to solve highly complex problems. The old rules of thumb are left to the era of the stone wheel. This kind of problem solving doesn’t emerge from emotions. That makes it interesting as a future model.
We are just at the start of an era of mind scaling—thousands, then millions of minds in an open, wiki-like space, where experts cooperate in finding and applying the best models and designs, ones that describe processes for climate, health, schools, distribution system, military and defense development.
The notion that one president or prime minister will play the same role in this mind scaled world is to miss the point of the political dimensions of the new mind scaling environment. Meta hives housing communities of the most knowledgeable and advanced minds in a domain begin to produce results that no one of them fully understands. No political leader will understand the patterns, the concepts emerging from them, either. The chances are the mind scaling reaches a point beyond our current capacity to process through political systems and institutions that remain rooted in the past where boardroom held a couple of dozen people.
We may not know how these new technologies align with our overall interest. Even worse, we won’t have the tools to know. Like a chimp staring at a high-rise building and thinking it comes from nature. Advance simulators will give us a dummy-for-humans, bullet-point explanation. It will tell us that talking about alignments assumes a level of stability and predictability that doesn’t exist. The complex system evolves much faster than we can process the results.
Information quantity and quality has increased to the point that it can be contained with the old riverbanks that carried the flow of information. Like any river, the channel is defined, and over time the channel shifts, twists and bends, changing its boundaries. But that is gradual change, one that we can prepare for. Bankers, politicians, the rich and connected have worked that river for their own benefit for years, crowding out the other boats. There’s nothing like a flood to get people’s attention. The horizon indicates a major flood is in progress. It has already hit. People like Donald Trump emerge when the water jumps the banks and all the anchors are dragging on the river bottom. Countries like China have tried to censor the information. Call it flood control. It won’t work. You can’t stop the kind of flow that headed straight for us.
As I said, if I were from the future delivering a message, it is the monsoon season and the rains are hard and come suddenly. My weather report is from the tweet about the 5,000 authors of the Higgs paper. Authorship has a new meaning. The list of names is longer than the paper. We still are at the juncture where we can’t give up the status that comes with authorship. But that will come in time. But before there can be a future, the political class and their wealthy backers who are doing everything to save themselves, need to address mind scaling at the policy level. It’s not like there is much choice. Sure they can survive a few more decades with eccentric performers promising a return to an earlier era where everything was great.
Credit: Hubble Heritage Team
Those 5,154 Higgs paper authors will be remembered as the vanguard who showed thinking, collaborating, sharing, storing and monitoring reach increasing optimal levels of knowledge and understanding. Also remember there are 10,000 new scientific papers every day. The individual genius who is not a team member is finished as a driving force. A politician that packs an emotional punch is also under the water line. He or she becomes largely irrelevant and remains, if at all, as a kind of entertainer to distract from the reality that there was no arc that came to the rescue when the information tide swept a thousand miles above their heads. Who is an author? No one, and everyone.