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.