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Is the internet on the verge of self-awareness?


Is the Internet on the verge of self-awareness?

More than 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan described technology as an extension of our brains, constantly mutating and branching out. “These new media have made our world into a single unit,” the brilliant Canadian theorist said about the emergence of a “global village.” Similarly, neuroscientist Christof Koch talks about the Internet becoming sentient in his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist.

A longtime collaborator of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA, Koch argues that consciousness does not depend on a specific kind of constitutive element —neurons, for example—, but on the complexity of the relationships among elements. The Internet has thousands of millions of nodes and each one is a computer, which in principle suggests that the Web could soon become sentient. Koch explains:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution. It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

In the end, this is an alternative for the preservation of consciousness beyond our current biological limits. A person can fuse their own complex inner web of relationships and memories, their mind, into external hardware. Earth as a whole, as a collective consciousness, might be able to do the same on another planet or in a satellite, and so manage to navigate the cosmic night awake.

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