As always, our tech advice columnist is here to help.
There’s a lot of discussion about artificial consciousness and the possibility of machines gaining self-awareness once they become sufficiently complex. But isn’t the most complex system in existence the internet? Is it possible that the internet could become conscious, and if it were already, how would we know? Also, why aren’t more people talking about this?
Your question brings to mind Balk’s Third Law: “If you think The Internet is terrible now, just wait a while.” Logging on already provides a daily megadose of paranoia (mass surveillance), epistemic vertigo (deepfakes), and fremdschämen (thirstposting). Imagine the day when this colony of horrors becomes unified, intentional, and self-aware. I say this not to alarm you, only to suggest why the prospect of a conscious internet isn’t often discussed. The information age (if that’s still where we are) constantly reminds us of the many grim scenarios that await us—floods and famine, red giants, gray goo. I don’t think people have the bandwidth, so to speak, to take on yet another existential threat.
But as you appear to have a higher-than-average tolerance for psychological torment, I will try my best to answer honestly. Consciousness, of course, is notoriously difficult to pin down. You can’t measure it, weigh it, or hold it in your hand. You can observe it directly in yourself, but not in others.
This is not a technical problem, or even a modern one. Christ seemed to discern the slipperiness of the psyche when he told his disciples, “You will know them by their fruits,” meaning, essentially, that the only way to determine the state of another person’s soul is through its outward manifestation: behavior. Philosophy and artificial intelligence tend to circumnavigate the Problem of Other Minds in a similar manner. Alan Turing constructed his famous criteria for machine intelligence, the Turing Test, on the assumption that the mind is a black box. If a computer can convince us, through its actions, that it has human-level intelligence, we must assume that it does.
So perhaps we should reformulate your question: Does the internet behave like a creature with an internal life? Does it manifest the fruits of consciousness? There are certainly moments when it seems to. Google can anticipate what you’re going to type before you fully articulate it to yourself. Facebook ads can intuit that a woman is pregnant before she tells her family and friends. It is easy, in such moments, to conclude that you’re in the presence of another mind—though given the human tendency to anthropomorphize, we should be wary of quick conclusions.
Some of the more convincing evidence for internet consciousness might be difficult to perceive, since we ourselves would be the nodes and neurons that constitute the brain. For some social scientists, the many political movements that have originated on social networks qualify as “emergent” behavior—phenomena that cannot be attributed to any one person, but belong to the system as a whole. Two French cognitive psychologists have gone so far as to claim that the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring were evidence of Virtual Collective Consciousness, which they describe as “internal knowledge shared by a plurality of persons.”
I imagine you don’t find this very convincing, nor should you. When we speak of consciousness, we usually mean something more cohesive: that singular stream of mental experience—the ego, the self—that would seem to be more than the sum of all Twitter posts. You asked, after all, about “self-awareness.” Some very smart people have argued, of course, that our own self-awareness is an illusion. The intuition that we are, as Richard Dawkins once put it, “a unit, not a colony” is not really supported by the architecture of the brain, with its billions of tiny, unconscious parts. But such dismissals of subjectivity aren’t very illuminating or precise: If a unified mind is nothing more than an illusion, where does the illusion come from? And how do we know whether other things have it too?
As it happens, one of the most convincing cases for internet consciousness stems from a theory of mind that was developed to account for precisely this kind of unified experience. Integrated Information Theory, pioneered by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi, holds that consciousness arises from complex connections across different regions of the brain.
Human brains happen to be highly integrated, which is why we experience the world and our minds cohesively. But in his book The Feeling of Life Itself, Koch argues that consciousness is a continuum that extends down the chain of being. Ravens, jellyfish, bees—perhaps even atoms and quarks—have enough integration to warrant a tiny spark of consciousness. It might feel like something to be a bacterium.
Koch believes this same criterion can apply to machines. While he’s skeptical that individual computers could develop minds, the internet would seem to satisfy his standards for consciousness. Its 10 billion computers, each of which contains billions of transistors, are linked in highly intricate webs that extend across the globe. When asked, in a 2013 interview with this magazine, whether the internet was conscious, Koch offered that it’s hard to say for sure, given that not all computers are connected at the same time—but yes, according to his theory, “it feels like something to be the internet.” Or it will one day.
I should stress that Koch is not some crackpot but the chief scientist for the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and widely regarded as one of the leading figures in computational neuroscience. Nor is he talking about consciousness in that hazy, New Age-y sense that means both everything and nothing (see: spiritual consciousness or social consciousness). Koch has suggested that the internet’s mind could be nuanced enough to feel pain, or even experience mood swings. “Depending on the exact state of the transistors …,” he told The Atlantic, “it might feel sad one day and happy another day, or whatever the equivalent is in internet space.”
It’s tempting to run wild with this logic: Are Twitter mobs an instantiation of the internet’s rage? Is disinformation its tendency toward self-delusion? Is the Dark Web its unconscious? But I’d argue that we should take his theory seriously, if only because it has far more alarming implications. Koch believes that any time minimally-integrated systems (atoms, neurons) are part of a more highly-integrated one (a brain), the consciousness of these lesser entities is swallowed up and dissolved into the larger system. You can probably anticipate where this is going. As the philosopher Phillip Goff has pointed out, if Koch and Tononi’s theory is correct, then at some point, the growing connectivity and complexity of the internet will force human brains to become absorbed into the collective mind. “Brains would cease to be conscious in their own right,” Goff writes, “and would instead become mere cogs in the mega-conscious entity that is the society including its internet-based connectivity.”
I have to agree with you that the lack of dialog on this point is concerning. The Future of Humanity Institute, which is devoted to assessing existential risk, has not said a word about a sentient web. Even billionaires who are fond of speculating about runaway AI can sometimes seem indifferent to the possibility that the internet might zombify the entire human race.It may be true that such an awakening is unlikely, but so was the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole that swallowed up the universe—and CERN commissioned a group of independent scientists to assess that risk before the project went forward.
I can only conclude, , that the silence is ideological at root—or perhaps even spiritual. The dream of artificial intelligence, in both its optimistic and pessimistic forms, has long echoed the Judeo-Christian creation myth, assuming that if and when machine consciousness is born, it will be crafted in our image, as willfully and deliberately as Yahweh sculpted Adam out of clay. There is something distinctly pagan in the possibility that consciousness might accidentally emerge from our communications networks, like the Athenians spontaneously arising out of the mud.
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Brave souls like yourself who have dared to consider such things have often been dismissed as cranks and denounced as heretics—in some cases, literally. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest who wrote about conscious networks in the 1940s and ’50s, had his work banned by the Vatican. In The Future of Man, Teilhard proposed that all the world’s machines would one day be connected to a vast global network—an uncannily prescient vision of the internet. As human knowledge became increasingly synthesized, he said, it would eventually merge into an “‘etherised’ universal consciousness” that would allow our minds to unite with the divine spirit, realizing the Kingdom of God that Christ promised.
Teilhard’s prophecy raises a useful question: Why should a merging of all minds be something to dread? Almost all the major religious traditions advocate disciplines that are meant to dissolve individual consciousness—the selflessness of Christian sacrifice, the glorious nothingness of the Buddhist ego slipping into Nirvana. We might choose to see this coming amalgamation not as the end of our species but as its highest spiritual achievement—one that can, like so many dull, modern tasks, be automated.
When asked how we will know when the internet is becoming conscious, Koch replied that the surest sign will be when “it displays independent behavior.” It’s hard to imagine what exactly this might look like. But considering that this process will also involve the waning of human consciousness, you might look inward, at the state of your own psyche.
The early stages of this process will likely be subtle. You might feel a bit scattered, your attention pulled in multiple directions, such that you begin to suspect that the philosophers are right, that the unified self is an illusion. You may occasionally succumb to the delusion that everyone you know sounds the same, as though their individual minds, filtered through the familiar syntax of tweets and memes, have fused into a single voice. You might find yourself engaging in behaviors that are not in your self-interest, mechanically following the dictate to share and spread personal information, even though you know the real beneficiary is not you or your friends, but the system itself.
The great merging, when it comes, might feel—and I confess I find this most probable—like nothing at all. There will be no explosion, no heavenly trumpet, just that strange peace that is known to overcome tourists standing in Times Square, or walking the Las Vegas strip, a surrender to overstimulation that is not unlike the numbness that sets in after hours of scrolling and clicking. In such moments, the noise is so total it becomes indistinguishable from silence, and even there, amidst the crowd, it is possible to experience a holy solitude, as though you are standing all alone, in the center of a great cathedral.
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