Four years after Darwin published ‘On The Origin Of Species’, Samuel Butler was calling for a theory of evolution for machines. Most attempts at such a theory have tried to frame it in terms of the steady accumulation of changes, recognisable as Darwinian.
But natural selection has certain limitations. For one thing, a new species can only be created through incremental steps. What is more, each step must result in a viable life form. Technology need not be so constrained. So where does that leave us in the search for an evolutionary theory for machines? It certainly does not mean there is no such thing, only that Darwinian selection is not always applicable. How, then, can we explain the appearance of anything that cannot have come about through the steady accumulation of changes to existing technologies?
We have to consider technology in its entirety — not just physical inventions but all processes, devices, modules, methods and algorithms that ever existed — in order to see a kind of evolution at work.
When we do that, we discover that the history of technology is by no means one of more-or-less independent discoveries. This is because any new technology can only come about by using components and methods that already exist. The jet engine, for example, was created by combining pre-existing technologies like compressors, turbines and combustion systems
W. Brian Arthur, who is a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, calls this ‘Combinatorial Evolution’. Some combinations prove useful, and so they persist and spread around the world, becoming potential building blocks for further technologies. Or, a time may come when they are clearly surpassed by other technologies and so they go extinct. Also, there are many possible combinations that make little sense, and they too become nothing.
Every invention stands upon a pyramid of others that made it possible. The history of technology is an evolutionary story of related devices, methods, and exploitations of natural phenomena. It results from people taking what is known at the time, plus a modicum of inspiration, and then combining bits and pieces that already exist in just the right way in order to link some need with some effect that can fulfil it.
THE TECHNOLOGY TRAP
Technological evolution seems to go hand in hand with the accumulation and refinement of knowledge. But when we consider people as individuals we find a great deal of ignorance concerning the fine details of how modern societies function. We all use technologies as if we understand them, when in fact we are largely ignorant.
How has this come about? Suppose our nomadic ancestors were fortunate enough to discover rich and fertile land, and developed technologies to exploit such resources, meeting the tribe’s basic needs. Doing so would have lead to prosperity, which in turn would have lead to population numbers rising.
But, that would have put more strain on the land’s ability to provide for the tribe, and technology would have had to become more sophisticated in order to continually satisfy basic need. Once the sophistication of technologies and the number of skills required to maintain a society reached a certain level, it would have begun to make sense for an individual to specialise in a few professions, because a person who concentrates on a few tasks all day becomes a far better at it than a generalist tends to be.
But, if a society of specialists is to function properly, there needs to be a way of organizing everyone. Systems of management become necessary, coordinating actions and delegating responsibility. Ever-growing stockpiles of building blocks manufactured in dedicated places require transportation. Each advance in transport and communication reduces the economic costs of recombination, making innovation ever less expensive.
Eventually, the need for networks of efficient channels of communication puts a pressure on the discovery of electromagnetic fields and how they can be used to send and receive digitized information. All objects in the digital domain become data strings that can be acted on in the same way, not even needing to share the same physical space for combinations to happen. Thus does technology become a system, a network of functionalities.
Once tribes have evolved into gigantic societies engaged in economic activities that span an entire planet, each city has become a technology island, totally dependent on networks of services bringing supplies from outside. Without such support, the city would die.
In that sense, our comfortable urban lives are technology traps. We are completely dependent upon technologies to maintain our way of life, while at the same time taking it all for granted. However, while it is true to say that we depend on technology for our survival, the extent to which technology depends upon people for its evolution may well become less and less as time goes by.