by Hans Moravec
The Merging of Humans
and Machines into a Global Superorganism
by Gregory Stock
September 15, 1993
A half-billion years ago, a
few species of single-celled protozoa stumbled irreversibly from loose social interaction
into a tight, specialized
interdependence. They became multi-celled metazoa, and human beings are
one sort. Metazoa greatly transcend their constituent cells in lifetime, abilities,
experiences and even materials (like bone). New kind of beings emerged out
of the interactions of the old.
Stock argues that analogously, in
the last century, worldwide human activities have become sufficiently specialized,
linked and coordinated through advances in transportation and communication
to warrant interpreting them
as an unprecedentedly potent collective organism he calls "Metaman." Metaman acts
through individual market, political and technical decisions, but its large-scale
behavior massively transcends them. Materials and energy flow in awesome
quantities through its body, from specific sources to specific destinations,
via water, road, rail, pipe and cable. Its collective memory is stored in minds,
libraries and increasingly electronic data banks. Its nervous system is built
of flows of human passengers,
physical mail and electronic messages and originating and terminating in human
institutions and electronic machinery. It makes decisions on the basis of stored
information and collective thought, mostly in a subliminal, distributed manner.
Its consciousness might be identified with the mass media, which can quickly
focus world attention on a particular issues. It is rapidly spreading from
its core in the developed nations to the rest of the planet. As it does, its
great control of nearly everything
improves conditions for its constituents, who could not imagine going back.
Though a single, potentially immortal, entity, Metaman evolves rapidly through
internal competition. New devices and methods are created by conscious design,
simulation or chance, and sorted out by market decisions. Successful innovations
spread rapidly through the whole organism, in active use, and as memories
in the libraries. Much of its evolution, for instance improvements in information
handling, acts to accelerate
the evolution, already perhaps a million times as fast as life's pure Darwinian
Metaman is absorbing and displacing Gaia, the superorganism
some see in the global biological ecology. Wilderness areas now exist at the
whim of the collective mind, which values the past, but is so pervasive and energetic
its every twitch causes change. Metaman's growing capabilities diminish
its dependence on Gaia's inflexible supplies, as materials, medicines and food
are increasingly devised in
laboratories through design or systematic search rather then found in the wild.
It is absorbing human cultural diversity, as its material and information flows
raise populations to an increasingly high, but relatively homogeneous, state.
It is beginning to redesign humans themselves, through artificial parts and
genetic manipulations. Metaman anticipates and acts on the future, as national
rules on food, water and reproduction, international reactions to disaster, disease,
weapons and environmental
effects, and even studies on diverting asteroid collisions show. Already it
routinely manages events of a scale that might have extinguished prior forms of
All this is just the beginning. The processes and institutions
that make up Metaman are growing more potent exponentially. Metaman is on the
verge of reproducing into outer space, probably in tailored artificial forms
that leave biological humans behind.
The book backs up this view of
human global civilization with
a host of examples, all perfectly sound, drawn mostly from recent science, business
and political news, referenced in end notes. Having come to most of the
same conclusions myself, I found the presentation convincing. In its light, many
losses, biological and cultural, that cause hand-wringing in those focused on
the way things were, become merely the birth pangs of something much grander.
While a third of present species (a majority of them beetles adapted to tiny
tropical niches) and a greater
fraction of human languages may become extinct, greater diversity, in the form
of machinery, engineered organisms and ways to express more complex thoughts, will
grow in their place. Gaia may have been resourceful, but Metaman is more so,
as its forays into space witness. An immensely robust, growing organism, Metaman
is essentially unstoppable, but our individual choices influence the details
of its growth, even as we enjoy its benefits.
on the robustness of Metaman,
able to survive continent-wide plagues, wars, droughts, floods, famines and more
subtle dangers. I think he ought to have mentioned the "eggs in one basket"
drawback of being a single organism. The most obvious pathology, the threat of
world-wide nuclear holocaust, seems to be ebbing, but other systemic catastrophes,
hinted at by global depressions, speculative bubbles and nationwide utility
breakdowns, may lurk in the internal dynamics, whose totality no one, not even
Metaman itself, fully understands.
My own confidence in Metaman will be enhanced when there are several of
them, across the solar system, or around nearby stars.
Though he hints
at many future possibilities, Stock is timid about making long-term predictions.
He suggests early on that human beings are likely to be a part of Metaman
indefinitely, but later notes there are technologies that will probably totally
reshape or replace humans. In my opinion, he greatly overstates the long-term
importance of the human form.
Metaman evolves so quickly that essentially everything we know, including ourselves,
is in the process of becoming history. Old-style humans will not long
remain competitive components of the global organism: already we are being squeezed
out of productive work by advancing automation. We can hope for a comfortable
retirement, or help in restructuring ourselves into something more useful,
but our current bodies and minds will increasingly be anachronisms.
well-written book whose point of view, if more widespread, would reduce the number
of frightened people angrily tilting at the windmills of a rapidly changing
Moravec is a Principal Research Scientist with the Robotics Institute of
Carnegie Mellon University. He has been developing spatial perception for mobile
robots for two decades, and promises practical results by the end of the third.
He is author of Mind
Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Harvard
1988) and the forthcoming Mind Age: Transcendence through
Robots (Bantam 1994), which explore the future non-biological
components of the Metaman mind.