Edward Ashford Lee


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

Cover Interview of May 20, 2020

A close-up

Many books you buy these days give a story that could have been presented in three pages, but since nobody buys a three-page book, had to be expanded to 200. Not this one. There are many angles, and I expect any readers will resonate with some and not with others.

If you are worried about how technology affects humans, and about how, in the coronavirus era, we are each becoming a digital persona, you may want to start with chapter 13 (Pathologies). Science fiction dystopias routinely portray humans who have succumbed to a War of the Worlds, a takeover by machines. I present a different view, one that is no less scary, of a more gradual coevolution, where the humans change along with the machines. In this view, undesirable outcomes need to be treated as illnesses, not invasions. The coronavirus is not an invasion, and our struggle against it is not a war. It is a scientific, medical, and cultural challenge. Our evolution at the hands of technology is similarly transformative.

If you are hoping for “the singularity” to enable you to upload your soul to a computer and become immortal, then please skip chapters 8 (Am I Digital?) and 9 (Intelligences). These chapters will pop your balloon.

If you are the sort of person who loves an argument, and you want to disagree vehemently with my arguments, then please read chapters 2 and 7. They disagree with each other, so you’re sure to find plenty of ammunition here. Chapter 2 (The Meaning of “Life”) finds ways in which digital technologies resemble living things. Chapter 7 says that they will never resemble us because they are made of the wrong stuff. The former borrows heavily from biology, while the latter borrows from psychology.

If you like a serious intellectual challenge, try chapters 11 (Causes) and 12 (Interaction). These two chapters take a deep dive (too deep, probably, for this sort of book) into the fundamental question of what it means to be a first-person self. My goal is to try to understand whether digital machines can ever achieve that individual reflective identity that we humans all have. These chapters offer some weighty arguments that if the machines ever do achieve this, we can never know for sure that they have done so. Even if the machines fall short of that goal, however, their increasing interactions with their physical environment (as opposed to just an information environment) will lead to enormously enhanced capabilities.

Last but not least, Chapter 14 (Coevolution) gathers the forces of the (sometimes conflicting) prior interpretations into a forceful argument that humans and technology are coevolving. I point out that recent developments in the theory of biological evolution show that the sources of biological mutation are much more complex than Darwin envisioned. The sources of mutation in technology look more like these newer theories than the random accidents that Darwin posited. Most important, I argue human culture and technology are evolving symbiotically and may be nearing a point of obligate symbiosis, where one cannot live without the other.