First, if you want to see clues about our future, step away from your computer screen. Go outside and stand near a four-way intersection that’s regulated only by stop signs.
Watch for a while as drivers take turns, not-quite-stopping while they gauge each others’ intentions, negotiating rapid deals with nods and flashes of eye-contact. You’ll spot some rudeness, certainly. But exceptions seldom rattle this silent dance of brief courtesies and tacit bargains — a strange mixture of competition and cooperation.
The four-way stop doesn’t work in some cultures, and it’s hard to picture anything like it functioning in times past, when mostly-illiterate humans lived in steep social hierarchies and “right of-way” was a matter of status, not fair play. Nor would robots, adhering to rigid laws, handle traffic half so well as the drivers I see, dealing with a myriad fuzzy situations, making up micro rules and exceptions on the spot, even as they talk on cell phones or quell squabbles among kids riding in the back seat. This phenomenon visibly illustrates how simple rules can be used by sophisticated autonomous systems (e.g., modern citizens) to solve intricate problems without any authority figures present to enforce obedience.
How does it happen? Experts in complexity theory coined a term — emergent properties — to describe new levels of order that seem to arise out of chaos, when conditions are right. For example, Kevin Kelly’s book,Out of Control, depicts how rudimentary genetic drives coalesce into the fantastic flocking behavior of birds. When intelligence extends this process to higher levels, the result — our own unique kind of flocking — is called civilization.