Our next human evolutionary leap
IN A RECENT commencement address at University of Bologna Silicon Valley billionaire and investor Reid Hoffman informed the graduates that they were part of the “AI generation.” He was able to declare this only months after Generative AI became available to the public because the potential impacts are so incredibly huge and powerful. Since his talk, the Boston Consulting Group has confirmed that Generative AI dramatically increases the productivity of both new and experienced workers. But the real effects AI will be felt mainly by our young people over the coming years and decades.
Post-Biological Human Evolution
Contrary to what some may think, human evolution did not stop with the final development of our internal organs several hundred thousand years ago. In a different, post-biological way, human evolution has continued ever since. Twentieth century historian Will Durant described post-biological evolution as the rise of new human capabilities, which he called “peaks of human progress.” They include the development of speech, taming fire, enlisting animals, developing agriculture, creating social organization, developing morality, making physical tools, developing science, writing & print, and education. Since Durant’s time “digital” has been added to the list.
Although a person may survive without these capabilities, they are all, in a way, new evolutionary body parts (some of which, sadly, many don’t yet fully have.) They are not “optional” — over time, all these capabilities became full parts of humanity, which is what they are today. Post-birth, humans still continue to be both bad and good to each other, no matter what new body parts and capabilities evolve. But he good news is that, since evolution no longer depends on biology, all who want to fully evolve can catch up — if we help and let them.
The “Human of Our Times”
The full “human of our times” is one who uses all their capabilities. People born after a new capability emerges see it as a normal part of their humanness, as was the case for speech, fire, animals, agriculture, social organization, morality, tools, science, writing & print, and education. NOT using any of our post-biologically evolved capabilities is like losing an organ or limb — it may be possible to function, but it takes a lot more effort. There is no obligation, of course, to use all our parts — each person can live their life at whatever stage of evolution they want to. But most young people, I believe, would rather their body parts be up-to-date, and are eager to keep up.
Over the past half-century, humans witnessed the rise of digital capabilities, a new evolutionary peak. Two decades ago, I called the young people born into a world that already had this capability “digital natives.” Today roughly 2/3 of the world’s population carries a smartphone on their person, with the rest clamoring to catch up. Digital has now become so much a “body part” that Implanted chips already exist.
The Next Capability: Generative AI
Humans’ next evolutionary capability is Generative AI — now barely a year old in the public arena. Already, people are being born into a world with these entirely new capabilities — they are our first “AI Natives.” Those with access will be able to think their first thoughts, speak their first words — and immediately see the things that they imagine appear. Over the next 20 years they and their successors will rise to adulthood amid explosive development of this new human capability. It is imperative — for their development and ours — that our young people start using these capabilities immediately, from the earliest ages. We need to quicky figure out how to do this. I recently stood up The Global Institute for Empowerment, Accomplishment, & Impact by Young People (eai-institute.org) to support the worldwide creation of Empowerment Hubs, places — online, in schools, in organizations, in companies, after-school, and more — where teams of young people of all ages can explore all their new capabilities freely and without limits in service of real-world accomplishment with positive impact.
Imagination to Instantiation
We humans have given ourselves a new gift — a new way of thinking and expressing ourselves, a creative capability previously confined to our artists and visionaries. Generative AI lets anyone incorporate all the knowledge in the world — i.e., everything ever written or drawn — into their thinking and creating. There are no age, race, class, gender, experience, or other barriers beyond access — everyone can use it. Getting it into everyone’s hands — especially those of our youngest people — needs to be a huge priority. Doing so will likely change humanity radically.
The greatesrt value in this new capability is the degree to which it will enhance, activate, and instantiate human imagination. Generative AI allows anyone with access to produce, accomplish and realize things that previously required specific talents plus years of specialized training. It already produces professional-level text, images, voice, and video, and will soon likely incorporate movement, feeling, taste and smell. Anyone with an idea — at any age and in every language — will soon be able to speak (or possibly just “think”) their idea into a device and create whatever is in their minds’ eye in the real world. (The exponential increase of compute power will bring this to everyone’s reach far faster than most expect). It is not plagiarism, since the Generative AI has no knowledge of the original documents it was trained on — it just cuts them into tiny bricks to be reassembled in new ways. It is, rather, the start of a newly evolved collective human mind.
From Putting In to Bringing Out
This newly evolved capability will shift preparing and raising young humans from “putting things into young people’s heads” to “bringing things out of their imaginations.” Many are already learning to speak the language of prompts required to enlist the power of Generative AI, and with current dissemination media, learning to do so becomes easier every day. Young people already writing and illustrating their own first books about whatever they imagine or want to know about. Eventually there will be a single device for everything, like the Primer from Diamond Age. Young people will grow up understanding how to control Generative AI just as they learn to direct their own bodies and minds, with much of the guidance they need in their pockets or “chipped” into their bodies. It will allow people, young and old, to use everything ever recorded in any form to write, draw, paint, and design anything they imagine — on what is now considered a “highly professional” level. As Generative AI connects with 3D printing and other capabilities, people — of every age — will be able to build things (objects, buildings and anything else) just by thinking of them. As a result of these capabilities, humaniity will flourish and rise.
“Guardrails My Ass”
There will, of course, be growing pains and conflict. Many are already calling for “guardrails.” But the great strength of evolution is that it does not respect any rails — except continuance. Evolution doesn’t even care if man survives — although WE do. Anyone who, in their pride, thinks they can — for reasons laudable or selfish — limit or constrain evolution, will, I predict, fail, except perhaps temporarily. Over the longer timeframe, evolution will choose its own path, and will no doubt surprise us.
In the shorter term, the world will evolve where the AI Natives take it. My optimistic perspective is that our young people — equipped with these incredible new capabilities — will unleash their imaginations in ways that will greatly benefit us all. Our new Global Institute for Empowerment, Accomplishment, & Impact by Young People seeks to unite all those who want to participate and help. You can contact us at email@example.com.
Marc Prensky is an internationally-acclaimed keynote speaker and award-winning author of 10 books. He coined the term “digital natives” and has given keynotes in over 45 countries.