Our Cyborg Future

Digital data is growing so fast, researchers ask: Could it out-evolve us?

photo of communication professor Martin Hilbert speaking

Martin Hilbert, an assistant professor of communication, studies the growth of information and its effects on societies. With digital data expanding so fast, he says social scientists and biologists need to explore its potential to evolve.

Machines growing smart enough to take over the world is an idea that has inspired science fiction tales for decades—Doctor Who, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terminator and The Matrix to name a few. 

“We need to start thinking about the Internet as an organism that can evolve.”

With digital information increasing at an astonishing rate, a UC Davis expert on big data and its effects on society says the concept of artificial intelligence evolving is no longer far-fetched.

“While we do not necessarily feel that we are the mere flesh-bots of our digital overlords, the merging of humans with the digital world has now passed the point of no return,” Martin Hilbert, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, says in an article co-authored with two biologists for the academic and research news site The Conversation

“We need to start thinking about the Internet as an organism that can evolve,” they write. “Whether it cooperates or competes with us is cause for considerable concern.”

An expert on the digital revolution

The article and a companion essay in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution grew out of previous research by Hilbert on the exponential growth of digital information.

Before joining UC Davis in 2014, Hilbert spent 15 years with the United Nations as an economic affairs officer, helping officials in more than 20 countries with digital development and launching a research and technical assistance program for Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The World's Information Capacity

an illustration of DNA strand, silhouette of a human against background of computer code

In this animated video, Martin Hilbert puts the world's technological capacity to store, communicate and compute data in perspective by comparing it to information found in books, newspapers, TV and radio shows and nature. (Produced by Hilbert, Gavin Wright, Stuart Allan and Dan St. Pierre, with the support from The Economist and the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communication. 3:45) 

In “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information,” published in Science in 2011, he and a colleague reported that in 2007, the world’s capacity to store information was equivalent to some 15 piles of double printed books from planet Earth to the sun. By 2014, they said, it had reached the equivalent of 4,500 piles.

The magnitude of technological information was approaching that of information stored in and processed by nature, according to Hilbert and colleague Priscila López: “To put our findings in perspective, the 6.4 × 10^18 instructions per second that humankind can carry out on its general-purpose computers in 2007 are in the same ballpark area as the maximum number of nerve impulses executed by one human brain per second (10^17). The 2.4 × 10^21 bits stored by humanity in all of its technological devices in 2007 is approaching an order of magnitude of the roughly 10^23 bits stored in the DNA of a human adult.”

That caught the attention of evolutionary biologists Michael Gillins and Darrell Kemp of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. In their ensuing articles with Hilbert, they compared human reliance on technology to evolutionary transitions, where life forms merge to create a new organism.

A call for more social science, life science collaboration

While the fusion of humans and artificial intelligence sounds like science fiction, Hilbert said that idea of a “technological singularity”— long theorized as the post-human era by futurists, philosophers, computer scientists, science fiction writers and others —is now widely accepted as fact in the Silicon Valley. 

Artificial intelligence manages our power grid and 80 percent of our economic transitions, he said. “The human sphere has already merged with this technological resource. It’s not a hypothetical. It’s just a reality. Humans are 100 percent dependent on technology. If you have a doubt, just turn off your cellphone, just for a year. Or try to survive without any direct or indirect contact with digital financial transactions. You even might be able to survive, but you could by no standard be considered to co-evolve as an integral part of our modern society.

This unprecedented merger, he said, points to a need for more collaboration among social scientists, evolutionary biologists and ecologists. “The question is, now what happens? … Evolutionary theory should be applied to it to help us think through these things."


Reported by Kathleen Holder, who covers the social sciences for the College of Letters and Science.