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The End of the World News

More and more is happening…. More connectivity occurs now in a calendar year than occurred in a million years a billion years ago. So somehow as we approach the present, we find ourselves in an ever denser realm of activity, interrelationship, connectivity, and the result of this is more of the same: producing a shrinking globe, ever more immersive technologies, dissolution of political, social, gender, class boundaries, of all sorts…. We’re about to become unrecognizable to ourselves as a species.

– Terence McKenna, 1998 interview

An unfolding global pandemic. Protests and riots across the United States. A cascading climate emergency (from fires raging across California to sea ice melting across the Arctic). A troubled economy. A somewhat incomprehensible stock market. A certain upcoming U.S. election. A strange media obsession with Russia supposedly exerting control over that U.S. election. Ubiquitous facial recognition surveillance cameras (from China to the United States). And then there’s that new Netflix docudrama, The Social Dilemma, that, in the words of one review, “examines the various ways social media and social networking companies have manipulated human psychology to rewire the human brain and what it means for society in general.

Is it me, or does it feel like there’s a lot going on?

Well, American author and lecturer Terence McKenna would have agreed. In fact, back in October, 1998, McKenna was recorded expressing his conviction that time is speeding up. It’s quite the listen.

But then, McKenna (who died in 2000) had been predicting for some time that time’s increasing speed would eventually result in a hinge moment in history; a turning-point for humanity that would represent a “transition of consciousness.” McKenna, psychonaut extraordinaire, estimated this surreal turning-point taking place sometime in the year 2012.

He wasn’t alone. Some may recall all those predictions of “Doom 2012” based on the Mayan calendar. In fact, the “2012 Phenomenon” had long proposed a major shift for humanity that year, with the most dramatic predictions suggesting something cataclysmic or apocalyptic for human society.

At the very least, believers felt something transformative would mark the beginning of a new era.

McKenna’s 2012 Turning-Point?

Although the world didn’t end in 2012, many don’t realize that the world did actually shift technologically back then. Because that was the year that artificial intelligence (AI) experienced its “deep learning breakthrough.”

Specifically, University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton (a great-great-grandson of the mathematician who may have laid the foundations for the information age, George Boole) leveraged large amounts of data to supercharge the neural networks he was using in an AI competition called the ImageNet challenge. Hinton’s approach was inspired by the way in which the human brain uses distributed neurons to form larger ideas. And according to investor Kai-Fu Lee (once the head of Google China), it’s the only major breakthrough the field of AI has ever had in the course of its 70 year history.

Soon enough, this neural network model, known as deep learning, was inspiring increasingly impressive research. Eventually, AI was able to beat the best human players in the complex and ancient Chinese game of GO because of applications based largely on Hinton’s work.

One might argue the news about Hinton’s advances signaled the end of the world as we knew it, and ushered in a new era.

What it All Means

In my last blog, I asked what happens next for the contact center industry (and society in general, of course) if the likes of author Ray Kurzweil turn out to be correct, and a computer becomes smart enough to take the “Turing Test” by 2029.

It seems outlandish. But what if human-level intelligence were to be within AI’s grasp by the end of the decade? After all, as XPRIZE Foundation founder Peter Diamandis has noted, “the rate at which technology is accelerating is itself accelerating.”

Confusion abounds. In the words of the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Olga Tokarczuk:

Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world….In the deluge of information individual messages lose their contours, dissipate in our memory, become unreal and vanish….

Back in 1983, British novelist Anthony Burgess published a novel called, The End of the World News. By 2019, an unfinished Burgess manuscript was discovered among his papers. Burgess (who died in 1993) seemed to have intended that rediscovered work as a follow-up to his famous novel A Clockwork Orange, a dystopian vision set in a near-future society where young people commit random acts of violence (sound familiar?). Burgess’s characters even speak a kind of Anglo-Russian slang (glimpses of a future Trump-Putin argot!?).

It seems that, once completed, the unfinished Burgess manuscript was meant to offer a statement on the contemporary human condition. In it, Burgess envisages a stage of development where we homo sapiens are cogs in a machine, no longer humanly organic, searching for an escape from an increasingly mad world.

For Burgess, we’re all caught in “The Clockwork Condition.” The manuscript was:

…a work that he envisaged as a philosophical piece of writing structured around Dante’s Inferno. Burgess had planned sections with titles including ‘Infernal Man,’ trapped in a world of machines, and ‘Purgatorial Man,’ trying to break out of the mechanical inferno....

George Boole. Terence McKenna. Geoffrey Hinton. Anthony Burgess. Ray Kurzweil. Peter Diamandis. Olga Tokarczuk. I think they're all onto something.

And so one wonders. If our Clockwork Condition is indeed that time is speeding up, and anything like human-level AI intelligence is somewhere on the horizon, will the contact center ecosystem (and society in general, of course) be ready for the impacts?

Contact center systems companies, business process outsourcers (BPOs), startups galore – we’re looking at you.

Image: photo of writer Anthony Burgess from The Guardian, April 25, 2019

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