A serious obstacle to evolutionary theory is the interdependent relationships between living things, called symbiosis, in which completely different forms of life depend on each other to exist. Darwin’s theory of biological change was based on competition, or survival of the fittest, among the individuals making up a species. He admitted: ‘If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection’.
Symbiogenesis—the emergence of a new species through the evolutionary interdependence of two or more species—is at least as important in the history of life as survival of the fittest. Mutualism, an interaction between different species that is beneficial for all actors, is widespread throughout nature. To a large extent, mutualism has shaped, and is still shaping, life on this planet. In fact, life as we know it would not have existed without mutualistic relationships: all eukaryotic life is based on ancient endosymbiotic mutualisms between its cells and formerly independent microorganisms (e.g. mitochondria, plasmids). Other mutualisms are known to have major impact on ecosystem stability, such as specialized interactions between flowering plants and their pollinators, or seed dispersal by birds, mammals and other animals. The mutualistic relationship between humans and their agricultural crops and domesticated animals was key to the dominant role our species is now playing on our planet
So, mutualistic symbiosis is a widespread phenomenon in nature.
Humans have evolved to adapt our behavior to the context in which we live. However, by becoming able to change the environment to better suit our needs, humankind went a step further than simple adaptation. As a result, in the coming decades we will see that for the first time, artefacts that we have created will start to adapt themselves and their behavior based on their ecological context. In short, we will be part of their context.
Hence, starting in the next decade and even more so in the further future, we will live in a dynamically changing world where we will be responding to the behavior of machines, machines will be responding to our behavior in a continuously changing fabric, and it will become progressively more difficult to distinguish cause and effect between man and machine. From symbiotic relationship to emergence of new entities: the establishment of a symbiotic relationship among (autonomous) systems as well as between them and humans.
There is yet another aspect of these trends that will become apparent over the next decade. The interaction of several systems, each one independent from the others but operating in a symbiotic relationship with the others—humans included—will give rise to emergent entities that do not exist today.
As an example, cities are the result of the interplay of several systems, including its citizens as a whole, as well as individuals. We can design individual systems and even attempt to design a centralized control system for a complex set of systems, such as a city. However, a city cannot be designed in a top down way, as we would do with even a very complicated system such as a manufacturing plant where everything is controlled. Just the simple fact that a city does not exist without its citizens and the impossibility of dealing or controlling each single citizen, as we would control a cog in a manufacturing plant, shows that conventional design approaches will not succeed.
This emergence of novel abstract (although very concrete) entities created by these complex interactions is probably the most momentous change we are going to face in the coming decades. To steer these trends in a direction that can maximize their usefulness and minimize their drawbacks requires novel approaches in design, control, and communications that for the first time will place our tools on the same level as ourselves.
The symbioses of artefacts with humans will move by little steps and has already begun. Once artefacts and systems have an autonomous intelligence they will also probably have seamless interaction capabilities that will enhance their local intelligence by making use of other entities’ intelligence. Where the sharing of intelligence will be designed, in opportunistic dynamic symbioses with other entities’ intelligence. We are already cooperating with machines. Over the coming years this cooperation will become more and more seamless to the point that we might not even perceive it; we will take it for granted. The next step is machines becoming aware (including aware of our presence and capabilities) and adapting their operation to the overall ambient. Some implants will become much smarter than today, adapting in a seamless way to the body, and conversely the body will adapt seamlessly to the implant. In the fourth decade we can expect this mutual adaptation, relying on seamless interfaces and low latency communications, to broaden beyond implants to components in an ambient that will operate in a symbiotic relationship. Intelligence will become a distributed capability giving rise to an emergent symbiotic intelligence.
We are now entering into in a new era of intelligent and super-intelligent machines. No doubt, the new ear will be driven by artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, Quantum computing, Drone, Blockchain and nanotechnologies. Artificial Mutualistic symbiosis, our next evolutionary step?