Adaptability and capability to leverage of the environment has been key to the success of life, from the very early forms to us and to what we see around us. Adaptability has not been a characteristic of the single individual, rather it emerged from natural selection as result of environmental changes.
Humans have been the first species that has been able to both change their environment to increase their survival probability (and wellbeing) as well as to adapt themselves outside of natural selection processes, e.g by dressing up to keep warm as the environment turned cold, managing fire, building a shelter …
More recently they (we) have been able to create machines that are able to help them and even mimic some human capabilities. The trend towards increasing those capabilities -and expanding them- to the point of exceeding humans also in cognitive capabilities is clear. By teaming up with machines humans increase their adaptability to the environment and can be even more effective in reshaping the environment to fit their needs. As shown in the graphic life has started from “non-life” and behaved in a sort of mechanical way based on the genotype. As the genotype became more complex and influence from the environment affected the behaviour we saw the emergence of variety of behaviours, and traits, related to a single genotype: the phenotype became the observable set of characteristics of life. With humans we have observed how the behaviour and traits of a single human become affected and entangled with his social context leading to what is called the extended phenotype.
We are now in a transition phase where our behaviour is affected by the digital world, and soon by intelligent machines. In the coming decades the growing capabilities of machines along the seamless interaction we will be having with them will further extend the phenotype. Actually, we will see an emergent behaviour that results from these humans-machines interactions, a phenotype that extends in the cyberspace. On the one hand we will have digital self replication and digital sentience (machine awareness) and on the other hand we will see a biological and digital fusion.
A further point to consider is the capability of tweaking with our DNA. From a technical point of view we already have this capability (using CRISPR/Cas9) and we are getting ready to apply it this to fix some genetic diseases. However, we do not understand fully the implication of genetic manipulation (the relation between the genotype and the phenotype is not completely clear) and there are concerns on unexpected side effects. Applying deep learning techniques may help in the correlation of genotype to phenotype, that is in understanding what the implications of a gene manipulation on the phenotype might be.
I am pretty sure that in a decade or two we will have the tools to “design” the desired phenotype and implement this design at the genotype level. It will start with focussed bio-engineering to fix some genetic anomalies resulting in a disease and it will move on to strengthen resistance to pathogens (it is likely to be the evolution of vaccination in the second half of this century). Beyond that point the road might take us towards directed adaptability on our side and towards the change of the environment to better fit our needs.
It is clearly a road fraught with ethical and social issues but I am sure they will be addressed and solved, possibly in ways that would not be considered acceptable by our current society and culture.
If this is the path humanity and machine evolution will take then we can expect, for the first time to have our offsprings becoming smarter than we are because they will have the power to change themselves and the environment by designing the changes, effectively creating a new species (transhumanism).
If the path will be towards a symbioses the question: “will machine become smarter than humans” may no longer be relevant as it is not relevant to ask if our liver is smarter than our gut… They are both essential constituent of the whole. This may be the future by the end of this decade. A humankind that morphs into a transhuman species by engaging in a symbiotic relationship with its artefacts that, in turns, will be evolving to better fit the symbiotic relations with us.