Part one of a two-part series on Incremental Change vs. Transformational Change by Rev. Bill Johnson.
An author I once read (and have now forgotten the name of) shared a story about incremental change. Take a photo. It’s a good photo, and probably one you’ll look back at often, but it’s just a photo. Take a second photo of the same subject moments later. Now, switch back and forth between the two photos. You will see that a few things have changed, and the experience will begin to feel a bit like one of those “Spot the Difference” puzzles you find in the Sunday newspapers. It’s a change, but it’s really just a notch forward. Two pictures aren’t really all that much different than one picture. This is incremental change.
But keep incrementing, keep adding pictures, and you reach a tipping point where you’ve added 15, 20, 25 pictures to the stack and you’re moving between them faster and faster … and it’s not just pictures anymore. It’s animation or video. What was still has become mobile. Incremental changes, repeated over time, become transformational changes.
So why write about this now? Because I believe we’re on the edge of a transformational change in our culture and world unlike any we’ve seen since the Industrial Revolution. I do have to say that I’ve been wrong before (for the record, Vaskin, I was totally wrong about Netscape Navigator and that whole “World Wide Web” thing not going anywhere), and that one of the nicer things about writing about the future is that it’s at least five to ten years before anyone can say for certain that you’re wrong.
However, there are a number of pieces coming together in ways that by themselves are incremental, but taken together they could lead to some fundamentally transformational changes. I’ve written about many of these things in the past, but I’d like to try to connect the dots a bit and see what sorts of things we might need to prepare for as a church. Let's start with Artificial Intelligence—AI.
At the beginning of October, Google announced their new Pixel line of smartphones. Most interesting in the announcement, however, was the revelation that the team had designed not “mobile first” (which had been the standard for some years) but “AI first.” The Pixel is designed with Google Assistant at its heart, and the stated goal is to anticipate the things you need to know and make sure the information you need is always within reach, often before you actually realize you need it. The reviews so far are positive, but not magical. AI agents like Siri and Cortana are in their infancy, but they’re making great strides.
As Moore’s Law (the idea that the processing power you can purchase per dollar doubles every 18 months or so) continues to hold true, we find ourselves with more and more processing ability to devote to previously unthinkable challenges like AI. As we approach Kurzweil’s Second Half of the Chessboard, we’re going to see the rate of development not only continue, but also accelerate.
While I’m truly skeptical that we’ll ever create a self-aware AI system, it’s possible that we can create one that can fake it well enough to fool the average person. As our world grows more and more immersed in smart agents and systems that can emulate humanity, though, we’re going to see more and more people questioning what it means to be human, and we would do well as a church to begin focusing on our anthropological understandings. Define for the world now what it means to be human so that we have clear lines to defend in the future.
The Industrial Revolution was brought about by the rise of technology that enabled industrial-style factories to mass produce goods and services, thus bringing about the death of cottage industry. The effects of it are still lingering (e.g., dense urban centers, fewer employees producing more), but we find ourselves on the verge of that system’s unraveling. As AI becomes better at more and more complicated tasks, we find that it’s already beginning to be better than humans at tasks that only a few years ago were impossible for computers to comprehend.
The most obvious example of this is the rise of self-driving vehicles. This is no longer science fiction. This is real world, and early results of use trials of this technology point to the AI agents being more capable and less error prone than human drivers.
While the initial effects seem obvious (I’m already envisioning my increased reading time when traveling), some of the economic effects are less so. Uber has already begun testing its first self-driving vehicles to replace human cab drivers. Busses that can operate without a human driver are being tested in Finland. The race is on to provide the first long-haul truck that can operate without a human driver, with several companies deeply invested. (Consider the revolution in the freight transportation industry when we no longer have to pay human drivers because we have vehicles that can operate nearly around the clock.)
For the moment, the intricacies of dense city streets may require human intervention for the last miles of a delivery, but those are questions of processing power, not possibility. Within the next several years, we’re going to see AI vehicles running the transportation industry.
The transportation industry isn’t alone, however. The race is on in nearly every profession to create AI tools that support and aid key job functions, ones formerly occupied by humans. Already, the legal industry is seeing a variety of AI search algorithms replacing much of the painstaking research that used to require teams of people to do.