Could the Internet Ever “Wake Up”?

What's to come?
Sept. 20 2012 3:47 AM

Could the Internet Ever “Wake Up”?

And would that be such a bad thing?

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While he’s glad to see the scientists “catching up” to the science fiction writers, Sawyer suspects they’re overlooking one thing: The psychology of a newly awake Internet would be very different from our own. It’s not just its lack of evolutionary history; it’s the absence of any rivals—or companions.

“Each of us is one of 7 billion, but the Internet is a sui generis, a one-off, unique. That’s going to have an enormous impact on its psychology,” Sawyer says. And while we understand and (often) fear our mortality, the Internet “would have every reason to believe it’s going to exist forever—or at least as long as the planet exists.” That, too, would set it apart.

Mind you, there are those who feel that any discussion of Internet consciousness, let alone Internet psychology, is getting just a little ahead of the game. Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University and the author of Consciousness Explained, says the Internet’s architecture is so different from that of a brain that it may simply preclude consciousness.

“I agree with Koch that the Internet has the potential to serve as the physical basis for a planetary mind—it's the right kind of stuff with the right sort of connectivity,” he said by email. But the difference in architecture “makes it unlikely in the extreme that it would have any sort of consciousness.”

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Again, evolution—or the lack of it—is the key. “The connections in brains aren’t random; they are deeply organized to serve specific purposes,” Dennett says. “And human brains share further architectural features that distinguish them from, say, chimp brains, in spite of many deep similarities. What are the odds that a network, designed by processes serving entirely different purposes, would share enough of the architectural features to serve as any sort of conscious mind?”

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, is also skeptical, and for similar reasons. “There's nothing stopping the Internet from having the computational capacity of a conscious brain, but that’s a long way from actually being conscious,” he says. “Real brains have undergone millions of generations of natural selection to get where they are. I don't see anything analogous that would be coaxing the Internet into consciousness. … I don’t think it's at all likely.”

Even Koch admits that he doesn’t lose any sleep over the possibility of the Internet waking up. Sawyer, however, sees the Web’s continued growth as a very real potential threat. As the Web grows more and more complex, at an accelerating pace, there is inevitably a “tipping point,” he says. “There is a point after which you can’t do anything about it. Should we be afraid of it? Absolutely.”

Even if those fears prove to be unfounded, such questions are still worth pondering. If the Internet doesn’t have what it takes to become conscious, it would be useful to understand why it fails. Perhaps we can even come a little closer to learning how our three-and-a-half-pound brains manage to pull it off.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page.  You can also follow us on Twitter.

Dan Falk is science journalist, author, and broadcaster based in Toronto. He tweets at @danfalk.

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