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(First published on November 10, 2018)

Man seldom questions his relationship with his environment, nature surrounding him, even the things he uses every single day. He has little time to relent and reflect on the minor details. Remember when Malcolm X used the Plymouth Rock as a metaphor for slavery in his “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us” speech? But it goes deeper than that. Not just a metaphor but confusion about the master-slave relationship.

In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trillian (née Tricia McMillan) carries two mice to the ancient planet-building planet called Magrathea considering them pets. However, it later transpires that the mice on earth are actually a protrusion into our dimension of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings whose sole purpose is to conduct experiments on the human race on earth which turns out to be a supercomputer. So, when all the time you were busy conducting experiments on the mice in laboratories, you were the real lab rat. Of course, this is fiction referenced here to ease you into the discussion. Want some dose of reality?

Consider these remarkable lines from celebrated Israeli historian Yuval Harari’s bestseller Sapiens, “The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud…Who was responsible? Neither kings, nor priests, nor merchants. The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat… Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants.” Just to add an esoteric twist to this let me mention here that according to 2nd century Rabbi Judah the forbidden fruit or product responsible for the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise was none other than wheat. The Hebrew word for wheat is ‘khitah’ which is said to be a deliberate distortion of ‘khet’ meaning sin. With me so far? Well if you are intrigued by the notion and want to learn more about the secret lives and dirty secrets of plants please read The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behaviour by Stefano Mancuso. You will not be disappointed. But as it happens this too is just a milestone in our journey of self-discovery. So, on.

With the advent of machines and technology man has relied heavily on them. This slavish dependence on machines is such that when you face power outage you feel like a fish out of water, when your vehicle is out of gas you feel badly crippled. My mind sprains when I think of books before the invention of the movable type printing method. In varied quantities the same is true of other machines that our parents and grandparents came to rely on. You can think how little surplus value a society could produce in the absence of these machines. Sadly, affluence often negatively impacts the good old wonder. You can call it the industrial revolution but it seems more like the second cycle of domestication. Some comfort, some reward and a little fear of loss, this is exactly how you domesticate a pet. Unlike the new discoveries in botany there is no sign that the factory, the lawnmower, the vehicle you drive ever had even an iota of intelligence. Unless you factor in two possibilities. First that the new revolution was necessitated by your old masters, the plants, either for their own comfort or to maximise your true potential to serve. The second possibility is alarming at best. Have you heard a concept of quantum physics called retrocausality? The ripple effect of future on the stale surface of the past. That the consequences of a momentous event in the future can change or flood into the past. That another kind of intelligence was to rise in the future and its impact laid down the groundwork in the past. If the second domestication was not the extension of the first, then is it possible that it was a backward protrusion of the third? Fascinating stuff, right?

The third wave of domestication is what they call the information revolution. In spite of the fact that I have just told you how history can be interpreted in some mindboggling ways I am sure you have never seen yourself as a slave of the internet. It began simply enough. New technology; ability to connect worldwide through now outdated email servers and browsers. But then it started getting better. A global network of computers where you can share heavy data in no time. Then even better. Smartphones, tablets and paper think laptops. Your handheld cellphone could easily pass as a supercomputer only a decade ago. It is the most important thing in your life. You walk around looking into those tiny little screens where your entire life is summed up. Next stop? Perhaps what Elon Musk dubs as the neural lace. Does it all remind you of anything? A television series called Person of Interest, easily the best portrayal of how a supersmart artificial intelligence (AI) is going to function and evolve. Too bad it was hurriedly shut down. Almost as quickly as the latest film in the Terminator franchise concludes that the AI poses no threat to humanity. Another series that shows you how technology is evolving is Silicon Valley. Recently they introduced the idea of the new version of internet based on connectivity between your smartphones. Without your knowledge it can use your phone’s processing power to build a greater, totally decentralised network. According to an estimate, the global number of cellphone users will increase to 2.5 billion by the next year. Imagine the enormous processing power of the new internet.

And let me add another twist here. In every other story they show that an AI was built in total isolation from the internet to ensure it (the net) doesn’t get contaminated. But then the AI escapes and does exactly that. There is no dearth of people who take no such precaution. Ever wondered if the internet is sentient? That the contamination has already taken place and now it regulates your life and is practically raising your kids for you? That it keeps an eye on you through your phone camera? Well, think. Think how free you really are.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2018.

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