Six months since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, relevant empirically proven information is scare, while general complexity is high—and rising. According to the lauded American sociobiologist and futurist Rebecca D. Costa, these are conditions that may be outpacing our ability to manage them.
Ms. Costa is an Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Award recipient, and author of The Watchman’s Rattle, one of the 2010s most critically acclaimed books. As an expert in “fast adaptation”, she counts luminaries such as Ray Kurzweil as her colleagues in helping humanity make best use of technology.
Ms. Costa discussed with INTREPID the possibility that the pandemic is a triggering event for the “fourth step” in human evolution. This “fourth step” involves training our brains to be better able to manage the complex world we find ourselves in.
“We’re not quite there, but we’re getting close. One of the symptoms of complexity reaching an apex and making the society vulnerable to a triggering event [that unravels societies very quickly] is that there is mass confusion between facts and unproven beliefs. [In this context], leaders begin to forge public policy based on unproven beliefs. And eventually public policy becomes irrational.”
An example of this “irrational” public policy in the wake of COVID-19 is responding to unemployment by investing into infrastructure.
“[Government is investing into] more bridges, more public transportation, more highways…that the people who are working from home for good are not going to use. So, while I don’t think COVID-19 is quite [a triggering event], I think we’re approaching a time where we are now being driven by unproven beliefs, rather than facts, owing to the levels of complexity that that the human brain is just simply not designed to be able to understand.”
“The nature of the evolution of civilizations is we never get simpler. Look at financial markets: you start out with barter; you wind up with credit default swaps that even experts can’t explain.
It gets more and more and more complex and more and more difficult for humans to manage or even understand. That is the nature of progress.”
According to Ms. Costa, we must leverage technology in order to manage this complexity, of which COVID-19 is just the latest major accelerant.
“When it comes to actual data, I trust machines much more than I trust humans. E. O. Wilson put it best. He said we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.
We’re biased in so many unconscious ways that machines are not. And we’re at the point right now where the data sets are so massive. We create in roughly every 12 months as much data as we created from the dawn of humankind to the year 2015. So, there’s just no way we can keep up with all of that.”
Ms. Costa posits that the predictive power of technologies like AI give human beings “a power, unlike anything humanity has ever had, to see consequences…We’re fast approaching a time where all of this data is allowing us to make really precise predictions and then head off negative consequences before they occur.” This capability, she says, is especially crucial as humanity confronts complex problems such as climate change.
“So, when people ask me, well, what will the role of humans be if decisions are being made and data is being analyzed that the human brain hasn’t evolved to be able to comprehend? [I say it will] be to be the stewards of ethics, morality, compassion, the things we will never be able to teach machines.”