The Emergence of Sapience from the Internet

A week ago I read a short story by Tad Williams about the spontaneous emergence of sapience from the Internet. It wasn’t really that good. Arthur Clarke did it many decades earlier and did it much better.

Anyway, uninformed amateur scientist that I am, I’m skeptical that consciousness will emerge from our computer networks as long as they are organized as they are. It may be true, using crude numerical comparisons of moving parts, that the Internet is at least as complex as a single vertebrate brain. But this ignores several key issues.

To explain what I mean, let me pose the following images and metaphors.

  1. Suppose we have a tiny clump of cells, just recently differentiated into neurons, that sit at the top of the notochord of a developing mammalian embryo. This is where all mammal brains, where all vertebrate brains, start. It begins here.
  2. However let’s further suppose that the embryo is infected with strange microscopic parasites which have somehow taken control of each nerve cell, of each cell in the embryo’s body.
  3. These parasites take over and steer the embryo’s histological development to meet their own goals.
  4. The parasites dedicate the neurons to performing tasks that have nothing to do with tissue organization or organ formation.
  5. The parasites control how the neurons communicate and function at all levels. None of this communication or function has anything to do with the normal histological development of an embryo.

Do you begin to see my point?

What’s happening here is that parasites never allow the embryo to develop sentience because they are using the cells to do things that have nothing to do normal embryo development. The neurons aren’t really neurons anymore because they aren’t allowed to function like normal neurons.

Substitute “humans” for “parasites,” “computers” for “neurons” and I think it becomes clear. Computers aren’t programmed to function like neurons or stem cells. They programmed to function like word processors, e-mail clients, game machines, bank databases, graphics editors, web servers and so on. It doesn’t matter that we’ve hooked them all up into a network. The communication between these machines is nothing like the communication between differentiating stem cells in evolving brain tissue.

This is why consciousness will never emerge from the Internet. It won’t emerge until we completely change the focus of all the computers on it.

It’s my opinion that desktop computers, making rough numerical comparisons of moving parts, are already as complex as individual mammalian neurons. Computational neurologists have already written simulation software that can model individual neurons with reasonable accuracy and speed that can run on ordinary desktop workstations. Computational neurologists have now moved on to more ambitious goals.

IBM’s Blue Brain Project uses some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world to model something called a cortical column. A neocortical column is an organized collection of about 80 to 120 neurons all connected together in a space of one cubic millimeter. The surface of the neocortex of mammals, the part of the brain that has all the folds, is composed of hundreds of thousands of cortical columns.

This should give us some idea what we’re up against.

We’d need a few hundred thousand Blue Brain machines are all communicating as cortical columns would before we can start talking seriously about the strong formulation of artificial intelligence, let alone the spontaneous emergance of consciousness from the the Internet.

Please note, I’m not saying it’s impossible. In fact, if you read through this carefully, you’ll see that I’m actually saying that we’ve made an astonishing amount of progress. It took blind evolution more than 3 billion years to arrive at a mechanism as complex as a cortical column. We’ve been at this, what? 500 years? Seems to me we’re getting very good, very fast!

Moore’s law suggests that it’s only a matter of time before comsumer-grade computers can run something like the Blue Brain simulator as a low level process. Think of the SETI@Home program that analyzes small blocks of radio telescope data. This program runs as a screen saver during idle time when you’re not using your computer for something else. Now imagine if the Blue Brain simulator was set to work in a similar way.

The simulator might hog all your bandwidth as it communicated with other simulators on the Internet. Other times it would be quiet. It would all depend on what the simulators were thinking about. Some simulators would have frequent heavy loads while others would hardly see use at all.

This still wouldn’t be true consciousness though because we’ve ignored connecting these synthetic neurons to some sort of body or senses. The closest analogy I can think of is the brain tissue of an embryo before birth. There is very little sense data and the body isn’t complete yet.

But at last we’d be getting somewhere. Strong AI would be with reach. Such a scheme might have a lot to teach us about organic brains.

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