Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Emergent Artificial Consciousness - Matt Banbury (Team LSD)

Matt Banbury (Team LSD)

To this day, the Internet has been growing for roughly 30 years, but the commercially accessible web as we know it is not yet 15 years old. Early economic models of the web suggested it would be like television, but better. In retrospect, this ‘Television 2.0’ phase passed as quickly as it came to serve as the platform from which the Internet would launch its explosive growth into the user-driven paradigm of social collaboration now called «Web 2.0.» Today, the Internet is the hub of our communicative existence, with more and more individuals «plugging in» through progressively capable devices.

Imagining the entirety of this ever-increasing web of connections among us seems daunting considering its restricted accessibility. Looking at the web through our computers, laptops, and mobile phones is like looking at a window from afar: We can see only a small portion of what is beyond the glass. However, if we could press our faces right up against that window or, even better, open it wide enough to put our heads through and witness the web in three dimensions, we would see a vast neural network similar to that of any complex organism with computers and servers acting as though they were neurons in a brain among their shared, interconnected, digital space.

Kevin Kelly, expert of digital culture and founder of Wired magazine, posits that “the rapidly increasing sum of all computational devices in the world connected online, including wirelessly, forms a super-organism of computation with its own emergent behaviors” (Kelly). He defines this “One Machine” as the emerging super-organism composed of billions of sub computers which compute individually on their own, but also coalesce to form a collective smartness that is superior to any of its parts. How could this be possible? Is the Internet really the birth pangs of a “super-organism” with its own emergent behaviors?

Answering such questions proves rather difficult because even the definitions of our own life, consciousness, and intelligence are far from ironclad. We know for certain how life is distinct from non-life and how consciousness and intelligence are distinct from the lack thereof, but the infinite continuum between the extremes of these traits makes defining them in concrete, unchanging terms impossible. More importantly, our ability to evaluate these traits in other entities is bottle-necked through how they manifest within our own perceptions and interpretation of those observations. Therefore, we can only assert what life, consciousness, and intelligence are in our own linguistic terms. Asking someone for proof of whether or not there is an internet super-organism, or what its “behaviors” might be, is like asking one of the tens of trillions of cells in our bodies how the biological system it contributes to operates as a whole. Surely it could never do such a thing when we have a hard enough time doing it ourselves.

At the most rudimentary level, the cells that compose our bodies are not that different from the individuals who make up human civilization: Both of them modulate their attention and effort towards the goals of obtaining, retaining, and maximizing specific parameters. Simply put, life uses what is at its disposal to sustain its own existence as optimally and for as long as possible. With this fundamental motivation in mind, it will be easier to understand the reasons underlying technological evolution, the role artificial machine intelligence will play in our lives, and what kind of future to expect for humanity.

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