extropia-at-thinkers-20090302_001No, it’s not about Google Wave — but you still might find it entertaining reading! — Gwyn

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place” - Lewis Carrol.

INTRODUCTION

This essay, which is all about the evolution of search engines, begins (peculiarly enough) with the extraordinarily toxic rough-skinned newt, which can be found in the Pacific Northwest. Of all the things you might be tempted to eat, this orange-bellied critter is not one of them. It produces a nerve toxin powerful enough to kill 17 fully-grown humans. All of which seems rather over-the-top. After all, a fraction of the poison would be sufficient to kill most natural predators. Why, then, has the rough-skinned newt evolved such a powerful toxin?

Well, it has a nemesis in the form of the red-skinned garter snake. This snake has evolved immunity to the newt’s poisonous defences and can happily snack on it without suffering much harmful effects. So, the incredible levels of toxin that the newt evolved came about because of a kind of arms race. The newt evolved toxins as a way to avoid being eaten. The red-skinned garter snake evolved resistance. This set up environmental conditions that favoured newts with more potent toxins, which in turn favoured snakes with more effective resistance.

Scientists have a name for this kind of arms race. They call it a ‘Red Queen’. The name comes from a character in Lewis Carrol’s ‘Through The Looking Glass’. In the story, the Red Queen takes Alice on a long journey that actually takes her nowhere. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. And that is what has happened to the Rough-Skinned Newt. Despite the enormous advances it has made in the evolution of toxic defences, it still gets eaten by its nemesis.

TECHNOLOGICAL “EVOLUTION”?

Now, I know what you are thinking. ‘Come on Extie, what has any of this got to do with Google?’

Well, I want to talk about the evolution of search engines and how competition among Google and its rivals, plus the environment that weeds out less effective competitors, might push search software into becoming as comparatively powerful as the newt’s toxins. I believe we are heading for an ‘ultimate Google’ and that this will have interesting consequences for the relationship between humans and avatars.

The first question we need to look into is this: Is it correct to say technology evolves? Sometimes, when I have referred to technological evolution during Thinkers discussions and elsewhere, other participants have objected, pointing out that evolution applies to the natural world and not to artificial things.

While Darwin’s theory is obviously the first thing anyone thinks of when the word ‘evolution’ is mentioned, the word itself existed before  he established his theory. According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of evolution is, ‘the process of developing into a different form’. Compare the earliest airplane with modern airliners, or your computer with the calculating machines of the 1950s. Who can deny that, over the decades, most technology has indeed gone through a process of developing into different forms?

As if that were not proof enough that it is indeed legitimate to talk about technological evolution, scientists who study Nature are quite comfortable talking about it. In his book ‘Evolution’, Carl Zimmer wrote, “ a new form of evolution has come into being. Culture itself evolves… In the 1960s, humans stumbled across a new form of culture: The computer… there is no telling what the global web of computers may evolve into”.

In the book, ‘The Origins Of Life”, John Maynard Smith asks the kind of questions most commonly associated with transhuman and singularitarian issues:

“Will some form of symbiosis between genetic and electronic storage evolve? Will electronic devices acquire means of self-replication, and evolve to replace the primitive life forms that gave them birth?”

As for everyone’s favourite scientist — Richard Dawkins — (not one to suffer misrepresentations of Darwin’s theory), he observed that “there is an evolution-like process… variously called cultural evolution or technological evolution. We notice it in the evolution of the motor car, or of the necktie, or of the English language”. But he also makes the important point that “we mustn’t overestimate its resemblance to biological evolution”.

Indeed not. Although biological and cultural evolution are just similar enough that some scientists wonder if some of the same principles are at work in both of them (Dawkins’ concept of ‘memes’ is perhaps the most famous comparison), in other ways technological evolution is unlike natural selection.

Perhaps the biggest difference can be highlighted in the following way. Consider those early fish that dragged themselves out of the water and evolved into land-based animals. You sometimes see this described as a grand conquest of the land, but those fish did not drag themselves into dry land in order to achieve the goal of  colonising it. They were only doing what they had to do in order to survive at the time. Although it may seem so with hindsight, natural selection does not have any predetermined goal. It is not heading anywhere, particularly.

But now consider the evolution of rocket-engine technology from the German V2 missiles to the mighty Saturn V. Unlike natural selection, we can imagine a goal and imperfectly guide technology towards realising our dreams in the future.