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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

When the Net Becomes Conscious

A journalist emailed me today and asked me some questions about the possibility of the Internet becoming conscious. The questions and my answers follow:

> 1) Why do some people think it is possible for the internet (or internet plus humans) to become conscious? Is it to do with the network architecture?

Many scientists believe that consciousness is a property that will inevitably emerge from any complex system that has the right sort of internal dynamics, and the right sort of interaction with its environment.

Exactly what the right sort of dynamics and interactions are, different theorists disagree on. But it seems plausible that the Internet may have enough of them to develop its own sort of consciousness. The Internet perceives and acts on the world; it stores declarative, episodic and procedural memories; it recalls some information and forgets others; etc. In short it behaves a fair bit like a human mind, though there are a lot of differences too.

According to this perspective, the Internet might already have a degree of consciousness, though of a type quite different from human consciousness.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield views consciousness as consisting of "whole-brain activation patterns". In this sense one would say that the Internet of today has a more fragmented, dissociated consciousness than a human mind ... there aren't so many "whole-internet activation patterns", though there are intense patterns spanning large portions of the Internet.

Of course, there are many philosophies of consciousness. My own view of consciousness is a bit eccentric for the scientific world though rather commonplace among Buddhists (which I'm not): I think consciousness is everywhere, but that it manifests itself differently, and to different degrees, in different entities.

So to me the interesting question is whether the Internet has (or will develop) consciousness of the same type as humans, or maybe even of a more advanced and intricate type.

It seems that as the Internet expands and grows richer, it *could* develop a more human-like, more unified consciousness than it has now ... with more coherent "whole Internet activation patterns"...

> 2) What might be the consequences of such an event? Do you think it might be something that we should welcome?

The potential consequences of the Internet developing more coherent holistic activation patterns (ergo more humanlike consciousness) are rather difficult to predict, I find!

However, I personally am pessimistic about the future in the case that humans remain the most powerful minds on the planet. I don't trust us to use our increasingly advanced technologies in an ethical and nondestructive way.

So I think the outlook for humanity is probably better in the case that an emergent, coherent and purposeful Internet mind develops, than in the case where it doesn't.

But there is a lot of uncertainty in either case!

> 3) If it were possible, what would be needed to make the internet conscious? How far away from that situation are we?

My guess is that humanlike consciousness is not going to spontaneously evolve from the Net. However, I think someone could engineer it, by specifically creating an AI system on a server farm, oriented toward serving as a kind of "central cognition engine" for the Internet as a whole.

This central cognition engine wouldn't need to control everything on the Net; it would just need to read a lot of the information out there on the Net, and then insert information of its own creation in appropriate locations (posting to email lists, creating web pages, buying and selling things, etc.).

The engine might be created with some other primary purpose (e.g. as an artificial scientist aimed at making new discoveries via collaborating with human scientists online), or it might be created specifically with the goal of transforming the Internet into a more coherent, more humanlike intelligence. Either way the effect might be the same.

This is the scenario I described in my 2001 book "Creating Internet Intelligence," and I still think it is a plausible one.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Once Science Eliminates Pain ...

The bored or overly curious may check out my latest neurological dysfunction (aka work of fiction) "The Last Aphrodisiac", at

What happened was, I was driving late at night listening to a Morphine CD in the car, then got home, lay in bed and fell asleep with the song "Cure for Pain" in my head.

I had a number of dreams on the theme (what if pain were really eliminated, in some interesting sense? what would life be like? what if it were rediscovered?) and woke up plagued by this story. On a cross-country flight to a weekend workshop on "Evaluation and Metrics for Human-level AI", I decided to write it down...

At first I thought it would take a single page to write down, but it wound up 15 pages, and the punchline doesn't start to unfold till page 7 or 8.

This is the first story I've written in a long time that doesn't involve AI in any serious way. Rather, it uses future tech like uploading-to-superhuman-form and cranial jacks to enlarge upon certain aspects of human relationships, especially romantic ones. It's probably the closest thing to a maudlin love story I'll ever write (well, I hope so).

Ahh, the things that can transpire between a man, a woman, and an illicit cranial jack modification device... ;-)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Freaky Russian Paranormal Biology (plus irrelevant personal-history rambling)

A friend pointed me to this paper

which I found provoking and interesting, though nowhere near fully convincing....

The authors argue that much "junk DNA" actually serves as an interface to some sort of energy-informational field reminiscent of Sheldrake's "morphogenetic field"...

Their comments on traditional biology are a bit naive: in the last 5 years a lot of functions of formerly-known-as-junk-DNA have been found. So it's no longer true that ordinary biology says 95%+ of DNA is useless. We're finding this DNA serves a lot of regulatory functions, even though it doesn't code for proteins.

On the other hand, that oversight doesn't make their theory wrong; it just makes them out of date regarding traditional biology.

The experimental results they describe are certainly compelling and intriguing. Fraud is always a possibility, yet, I'm wary to dismiss results as likely fraud just because they violate currently standard scientific theories. (After all, every scientific paradigm prior to the current ones has been overthrown, right?)

As an aside in their discussion, they mention some old results involving Kirlian photography. I tried to build a Kirlian camera in my basement once, in Randolph NJ in the late 1990s, with a view toward trying to replicate the "phantom leaf effect" (see link below) ... but wound up setting fire to part of the basement instead. (I did build a Tesla coil from a neon sign transformer, and it worked a few times, but eventually it caught fire before I finished making it into a Kirlian camera apparatus.)

A recent attempt to replicate the phantom leaf effect, with intriguing results, is described here:

It's hard to be anywhere near certain, but I'm intuitively inclined to feel there might be some truth somewhere in the vicinity of these guys' wacky theory.

Obviously it's close to my own "glocal theory of psi" ... in the language of my "glocal memory theory" what they're saying is that living organisms have "keys" (the observed physical substance) and "maps" (the correlated energy-information field).

I'm hesitant to use the word "energy" in this context as these Russian authors do, because "energy" has a specific meaning in physics, and this (even if real) may be something different. I have thought of their energy-informational field as a kind of "pattern space", more like Sheldrake's idea of a morphogenetic field....

But, without some hypothesis regarding the dynamical laws of this posited morphogenetic field, their theory remains more philosophical than even "speculatively scientific."

It seems that conceivably -- if there's any reality here -- one could learn something about the laws of this field via systematically varying parameters in Kirlian photography experiments.

Yet another line of research I'd probably fund if I were super-wealthy ;-p


(warning: loosely related personal-history rambling below...)

Wow, I remember now that when I was 18 years old and in my senior year of college (at Simon's Rock, in western Massachusetts) and visited CalTech, where I was hoping/considering to go to grad school, I mentioned to one of the math profs there that I was interested in doing a PhD thesis on using partial differential equations to model bioelectromagnetic fields as had been discovered in some strange Russian experiments.

His reply was something like "Well, you certainly know a lot of big words, but do you know any math?" We talked a bit and he discovered that I did; but I didn't get admitted to CalTech anyway.... It was obvious that the math department there did not like that potential thesis topic!!

On that same visit to California I visited Berkeley's Logic and Methodology PhD program, where I expressed my interest in writing a thesis on using hypersets (non-well-founded sets) to model consciousness (which now is one of the themes of one of the handful of half-finished books on my hard drive). This was better received, and they were likely to admit me with funding (or so they said verbally) but I wound up not completing my application because the students there told me that the department inevitably made its students take 7-9 years to finish their PhDs. I didn't want to be in school that long, so I wound up at NYU's Courant Institute instead, which I liked because it combined math, theoretical physics and computer science in one department...

On that trip I also visited a girl at UCSD whom I had a crush on (from when she'd attended college with me in Massachusetts), and was disturbed to find she'd become a fundamentalist Christian, handing out Jesus brochures on the street. (I saw her 11 years ago and she seemed to have gotten over that phase long ago, fortunately... though it was a bad visit as I'd been up nearly the entire night, insomniac due to too much arguing with my wife-at-the-time Gwen, and was completely bleary-eyed and -minded for the whole visit ... that was a few days before the birth of my daughter Scheherazade and Gwen was mad at me for repeatedly getting stoned out of my mind with one of my friends at a time when the baby might pop out at any minute ... well, at least being totally stoned helped the fighting go down easier!!)

In hindsight, that was a rather entrepreneurial trip for a college senior to make (esp. an 18 year old one): I basically invited myself on interviews to grad schools I was interested in, prior to even completing my formal applications to the places ... to go talk to the profs and students there, sit in on classes, and get a feel for the departments. I didn't realize at the time that this was a fairly eccentric thing to do. But it was a good idea.... Although I had only one set of clothes for the whole trip, because People Express Airlines (which featured a great $99 cross country flight) sent my luggage to Europe by mistake.

(Unfortunately that trip caused me to get fired from my job as a math homework grader, because I just took off from college for a week and flew to California without giving any notice to my boss, so all the papers went ungraded while I was gone. I wasn't too conscientious back then. I'm still a slob with paying bills for the house and such, but I try not to be a mess like that in professional life anymore! Still it's hard to focus on reality and not be an absent-minded professor sometimes ;-)

All that probably has something to do with Kirlian photography, auras and Russian theories of morphogenetic fields ... but since I don't get stoned hardly ever these days, I'm not in the right state of mind to find the connecting thread; and I'll go cook dinner instead and then get down to some useful work (oh yeah, and Scheherazade and I are going to watch the film Baghead tonight... which unfortunately has nothing to do with Buckethead...)

Hmmm... that reminds me of the Timothy Leary Family Reunion I attended in San Francisco last week ... what a wonderful assortment of old hippies with cosmic looks in their eyes and wild ideas in their brains; along with various sympathetically resonating youngsters like me ... but, I won't go there right now...