Edward Ashford Lee


On his book The Coevolution: The Entwined Futures of Humans and Machines

Cover Interview of May 20, 2020

The wide angle

I am an engineer. I design and build things that never before existed (mostly software, these days). For most of my life, I thought these things were my personal creations, the progeny of my brain. I have since come to realize that this illusion is a bit like being proud of the bag of groceries I just brought home from the grocery store, as if that were my own personal accomplishment. As the coronavirus calamity has so dramatically underscored, my role in that accomplishment is miniscule. The intricate (and fragile) supply chain that delivers an amazing variety of goods from global agriculture, food processing, paper product manufacturing, and chemical processing; the transportation system built on centuries of development of ships, railroads, roadways, and trucks; and the socio-economic system that organizes the thousands of workers down to the kind soul that bags my groceries, all make my meager accomplishment pale.

The same is true of the software artifacts I “create.” The laptop computer that I work with; the programming languages, integrated development environments, and compilers that I use; the wealth of help that is readily available to me through Wikipedia, Google search, and Stack Overflow, all make those few lines of code that I write a paltry permutation in a massive interconnected ecosystem. Even so, those few lines of code must be the result of my own cognitive creative processes, right?

In my book, I use the term “digital creationism” for the idea that technology is the outcome of a top-down intelligent design process, where every aspect comes from a conscious, deliberate decision made by a human creator. I offer an alternative view, where humans are the sources of mutation in a Darwinian evolution, where the technologies that procreate most effectively are the ones that survive, and where the technologies that survive shape the humans who further mutate the technology. Those who fear that we will lose control of artificial intelligence will not be reassured by the possibility that we are coevolving and therefore never really had control.

The question of whether machines can—or even should—be considered as living beings unleashes a torrent of other difficult questions. Are digital artifacts capable of living and reproducing on their own, without the help of humans? What are their mechanisms for reproduction, heredity, and mutation? Will they match or exceed human intelligence? Are they capable of self-awareness or even free will? Are they capable of ethical action? These are all hard questions. Most of them can equally well be asked about humans, as philosophers have been doing for millennia.

My book does not offer easy answers. I hope, however, that readers will come away with a better understanding of the questions. Perhaps too, wrestling with these questions will lead us to a better understanding of our human tangle with technology.