The Contradiction of the Crowds and the Future of Individuality

I recently took a long walk in a crowded place, and I could not get a particular thought out of my head.  Whenever I find myself in a crowd of unfamiliar faces of late, my thoughts seem to consistently turn back to a certain contradiction.

As I squeeze past thousands of people crammed onto a tiny street corner, I look out at all of those faces and it always strikes me just how amazing it is that each and every single one of these persons is so totally unique. Each person a new expression of limitless permutations of humanity. Yet, at the same time I was am also overcome by the sameness of it all. Only in those individuals closest to me can I discern the individual traits that make them unique, the vast majority of people are simply a part of a crowd. Individuals lost in a sea of humanity.  

This clash of individuality and similarity is the contradiction of the crowd.

The exceptional similarity of the human race has long been discussed amongst population geneticists. Our similarity comes as a consequence of a genetic bottleneck that occurred some hundred thousand years ago. We all seem to come from a very small group of ancestors in Africa. This fact means that humans actually show very low genetic diversity compared to other mammals. A single group of chimpanzees is estimated to have as much as two-fold more genetic variation then the entirety of the human race.

If we step back still further, human homogeneity goes much deeper than this even. If we simply take our chemical/organic makeup at surface value, then we are exactly the same (within a reasonable margin of error) as any other animal really; mostly water, with a bunch of carbon and some other elements thrown in. Chemically speaking, we are not different in any interesting way from a mouse or a frog. When we really zoom way out, we can see that the crowd we are lost in is not limited to a street corner, but is the entirety of life.

To see who we are we must zoom in. It is only in the extreme close-up, when we can discern the subtle sculpting of the facial features, and the minds behind them, that we can discern the individual. We must go all the way in from chemistry to biochemistry, through biology, anthropology, sociology, and eventually psychology, before we can recognize the uniqueness of those around us. 

So how unique are we really? 

If it is only under the microscopic view that we can differentiate one human mind from the next, then how big of a difference is there really? Our human minds are keyed to identify the traits that differentiate us, but it is similarity that truly dominates. The answer seems obvious; We are much more similar than we are dissimilar.  

Deeper than this still, we must now ask if our minds are really that special at all. In a world where we stand on the cusp of creating artificial intelligences that may soon rival or supersede our own abilities, do we still have grounds to be so firmly convinced of our own originality?

It is an obvious argument to make when thinking about the special nature of the human mind with respect to other animals, or other complex systems in general. If we can replicate the advanced function(s) of the human mind through computation (a la Watson, or potentially through next generation quantum computing), then this will mean that, at least in general, the abilities of a human mind are not so irreducible as we once thought.

Already we have witnessed the steady march of AI towards bettering us at tasks that we would have previously classified as uniquely human. It started with games like chess or Jeopardy, but it will soon be our jobs, and after AI will go after higher pursuits of art or science. The relentless advance of artificial intelligence will continue until we cannot differentiate a human from a computer.

Of course the emergence of a computer mind which is indistinguishable from a biological one would mean that we would have to abandon notions of the intractable complexity of the human mind.

We will no longer be special.

The human mind will no longer be the only intelligence in the room, but surely we will still be special as individuals? We will still have that unique histories which have subtly sculpting of our cerebral cortices and made us the persons that we are. We might no longer be special as a species, but we will still be individuals… won’t we?

If we are able create an artificial intelligence which can convincingly replicate a human mind, then how much further must it go to replicate any human mind? Why would a computer which replicates 99.9% of what makes you you, be incapable of overcoming that last 0.1% of what you call your individual personality?

While our modern age seems bent on the absolute glorification the individual, we must also be aware that we are in fact a remarkably homogeneous species. Even the two most antithetical individuals you can imagine, are but a hairs width apart. Arms, legs, eyes and ears, and even the parts of our brains all are (give or take) in the exact same place. All of that special sauce that makes you an individual may be nothing but a rounding error in the grand scheme of things. 

Replicating a human mind will be hard, but following that, replicating any human mind will be easy. Once we have Hal, then there we also have Steven and Mary, and Mohammed and Wei. 

Most of what makes us special is what we are together, the rest is just decoration, and if you don’t believe me I suggest you take a long walk in a crowded place.  

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