Join 3,382 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

The One Machine
October 26, 2008 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism. "My hypothesis is this: The rapidly increasing sum of all computational devices in the world connected online, including wirelessly, forms a superorganism of computation with its own emergent behaviors." [Via]
posted by homunculus (67 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Rhaomi at 2:53 PM on October 26, 2008 [10 favorites]

Not unlike the main plot of "Gods Debris".
posted by aheckler at 2:57 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

... Jane?
posted by Spinneret at 3:07 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's okay. It won't last long, what with 4chan being the cancer killing the Internet and all.
posted by Caduceus at 3:09 PM on October 26, 2008

It's all a bit Warren Ellis. Not in a good way.
posted by Artw at 3:11 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I, for one, bow down to our...

Aw, screw it.
posted by Samizdata at 3:12 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

We will know for sure when it can enlarge its own penis.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:13 PM on October 26, 2008 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry, Dave, but we only have one minute before reaching minimum safe distance, so thank you for participating in this Aperture Science Enrichment Center activity. Perhaps you should sit down, have a stress pill, and think things over while we nuke you from orbit, starting with Seattle. It's the only way to be sure the cake isn't a lie.
posted by WolfDaddy at 3:14 PM on October 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

I first read this as "Global SuperOrgasm" and was a lot more excited.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:15 PM on October 26, 2008 [6 favorites]

YAY Global SuperOrgasm! woot.

Ah, so the Blanket Theory comes to computer science. About time.

I'm smiling. Can you feel it?
posted by nickyskye at 3:19 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: because in many ways it acts as one supermegacomputer.
posted by finite at 3:21 PM on October 26, 2008

Aw man, it's so late 90's in here.

I don't know. Emergence I'll (tentatively) grant you. "Superorganism of computation seems like overstating the case a little."
posted by penduluum at 3:23 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

That's not where those scare-quotes go at all. Nice job, superorganism of computation!
posted by penduluum at 3:24 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sounds suspiciously to me like a Vast Alien Living Intelligence System.
posted by philip-random at 3:25 PM on October 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

gods won't talk to you.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:28 PM on October 26, 2008

This is why we should be nice to machines, because one day they'll rule the world. Well, gotta go, need to buff my laptop.
posted by crapmatic at 3:28 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well then oceans are superorganisms. They have surfaces that are sensitive to different reactions than the water body. They have emergent behavior that doesn't occur in smaller bodies (tsunamis). They can be split into smaller organisms. Their consciousness or livingness is difficult to define. They transmit information and stuff, or stuff as information. They are autonomous. They store lots and lots of energy, their behavior is rhytmical. Etc.

This kind of thinking happens a lot, so much that when I hear somebody trying to capture something complex into his new favorite concept, my first reaction is to test if the definition also applies to something trivial. Almost always either it does, or then by playing with the same rules, something trivial appears to be as mysterious as the new interesting thing.
posted by Free word order! at 3:33 PM on October 26, 2008 [14 favorites]

by playing with the same rules, something trivial appears to be as mysterious as the new interesting thing.

Personally, I really like it when that happens.
posted by weston at 3:38 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

The author doesn't seem to address the biggest justification for calling "the internet" a superorganism: it's run by a bunch of humans, which are themselves organisms. Without us, there is no super-orgasmic anything. We don't need to talk about AI or "emergence" even. Technology is perfectly natural (organic), and the internet is exclusively human.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 3:43 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Free World Order has it.
posted by phrontist at 3:47 PM on October 26, 2008

Personally, I really like it when that happens.

Sure, read the Heart Sutra. The mistake is seeing this kind of interaction and ignoring your experience to attribute human/sentient characteristics to things that clearly aren't. A rock is a very "complicated" object at the right time-scale, and apple even more apparently so. The mistake is to see our kind of behavior ("intelligence" or "sentience", however poorly defined those things are) as applying to things that do not show any functional evidence of having these attributes. If we take a non-functionalist stance on consciousness, the other minds problem now extends to essentially everything - a carrot could be conscious, but at this point it's questionable what relation this use of the term bears to our general understanding of it.
posted by phrontist at 3:58 PM on October 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

It's a Cyber Gaia.
posted by nickyskye at 4:08 PM on October 26, 2008

How you say . . . Eponysterical?
posted by cyclopticgaze at 4:19 PM on October 26, 2008

By the way homunculus, your via link is awesome.

Now, getting down to actually reading the article, it's full of interesting concepts, plenty to chew on.

Follow the Moon, There's three divergent scenarios of how the peak wave of computation will flow around the globe once there is only One Machine, or what is usually called ubiquitous cloud computing.

huh. That's synapse stretching to contemplate.
posted by nickyskye at 4:20 PM on October 26, 2008

Well then oceans are superorganisms.

The article talks about a boundary condition, which I think oceans would fail, since you can't really say where the rivers end and the oceans begin. Unless you think big and go Gaia like nickyskye said above.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 4:27 PM on October 26, 2008

Heh. The funny thing is that you don't realize that the Internet is self-aware and that it populates message boards and blogs with its own investigative agents, participating in discussions, offering advice, attempting humor and learning to construct arguments.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:34 PM on October 26, 2008

There's three divergent scenarios of how the peak wave of computation will flow around the globe once there is only One Machine, or what is usually called ubiquitous cloud computing. In other words, in a seamless computing environment where data and digital services can flow to the optimal machines anywhere on the planet, what kind of route will they take?

What does that mean? In what sense is there ever going to be One Machine, in a way that there isn't now?

My computer is currently connected to some copper wires that shift potential to induce currents that, through a complicated bit of circuitry, result in the modulation of a signal on a coaxial line. From there it (probably) goes to a big switch or router across the street in my universities IT center. It effects a whole lot of nodes on the way to MeFi's servers which are, if I recall correctly, on the west coast. We can see the impact of what happens in my machine very clearly - these posts are read by a few hundred people through another complicated change of information exchange. We have, rather arbitrarily, decided this is "meaningful" influence - because from our perspective it's useful to draw the line at things we (a bunch of meter-scale hairless apes) can see the effects of very clearly.

But before my computer was assembled, all the elements of it existed. A long casual chain leading to it's current structure stretches back further than we can ascertain. It's very likely that within my lifetime (hell, before this decade is out) my computer will be sitting in a landfill harboring a colony of fungus alongside discarded diapers, or recycled in to a japanese teenager's cellphone. Things don't really die or get born, they continue.

If I unplugged my computer, it would (as we understand physical law today, arrived at through inductive and empirical reasoning) still have incredibly tiny gravitational and electrical effects on particles on the other side of the earth. Everything, it seems, is very much interconnected. Which interconnections matter, which lead to properties we notice? We can talk about the butterfly effect, but it seems quite clear that for any given system state B, there are several system states (A1, A2, A3) that would produce it, for a given degree of precision in establishing equality of the B1, B2, B3, states. A butterfly flaps it's wings in Australia and as a result a carbon dioxide molecule reaches escape velocity where it wouldn't have otherwise, along with countless other tiny changes in the world. Would we notice?

We can see that some interconnected systems don't manifest properties anything like intelligence (assuming we're willing to accept in the first place that intelligence has some general, non-anthropocentric meaning). The Kevin Kellys and Ray Kurzweils of the world want to attribute property X to some systems. I think their task is first to define these properties in a meaningful way ("intelligence" or "sentience") and posit falsifiable empirical hypotheses (which they'll have to find a way to delineate from the rest of existence) that would indicate X-ness or the absence thereof. So far, I haven't seen either attempted.
posted by phrontist at 4:53 PM on October 26, 2008 [5 favorites]

The article talks about a boundary condition, which I think oceans would fail, since you can't really say where the rivers end and the oceans begin.

Clear boundaries are rare. Ant colonies are classic superorganisms and the hive is built from needles and stuff. Where does the hive end and which is just forest floor? Is USB stick part of the Internet, or is computer with a slow modem or uptight firewall? Bluetooth mouse? My hair and nails are dead cells, but are they part of the living organism? Are parasites in or out? Or stomach bacteria and viruses? Eyeglasses and clothes are often thought not part of me, but here the separation is made because they are artificial additions, but when the whole organism is artificial, that difference won't hold. If I drive a truck into server room, that truck is or is not in The Internet -- at least it affects the computation. I doubt that rivers are any more problematic for oceans.
posted by Free word order! at 5:02 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

The article talks about a boundary condition, which I think oceans would fail, since you can't really say where the rivers end and the oceans begin. Unless you think big and go Gaia like nickyskye said above.

Where does the internet begin or end? Transistors are getting so tiny that cosmic background radiation has very noticeable and frustrating macro effects on the operation of processors (they produce outputs counter to their design). Solar sunspot activity also has measurable effects on electrical systems - do we include all these influences in our definition of the internet?
posted by phrontist at 5:03 PM on October 26, 2008

The strongest evidence that this superintelligence, if it exists, is malicious is that it allows the lamest comments on internet blogs to stand. Even youtube comments like "U R Geh" are summits of reasoned thinking compared to:

   Wow, what a great article. I mentioned it on my blog!


I have no idea why any blog author would let these turds stand.
posted by maxwelton at 5:07 PM on October 26, 2008

crapmatic This is why we should be nice to machines, because one day they'll rule the world.

Looks like this site beat you to it.
posted by Aquaman at 5:19 PM on October 26, 2008

I have an odd feeling of Solace.
posted by carsonb at 5:50 PM on October 26, 2008

All the pay phones rang at once, and when I picked up, somebody wanted to talk to Wintermute.
posted by muckster at 5:52 PM on October 26, 2008

Anyone read any Charles Stross recently?
posted by SpecialK at 6:06 PM on October 26, 2008

Clear boundaries are rare.

Ok, you got me there. But you might as well say clear boundaries are non-existent, and everything is connected on a certain level. It's just that organisms have a relatively reasonable definition of boundary that most people can agree upon, i.e. the cell wall. Just because the cell wall is permeable, and the contents of the organism might change over time, it's not hard to talk about what is inside and outside of any one organism.

"Superorganisms" are more difficult. I like your ant hive / forest floor example. And since the internet is something we build, just like the ants build the hive, the boundary condition seems less important than I first thought. So you're right, it would seem that any sufficiently complicated system could be considered a "superorganism," as you explained before.

And yet I still feel like I could go through the lists above and answer YES or NO to a lot of those examples. Is _____ part of the internet?:

USB stick - YES
computer with a slow modem - YES
uptight firewall - YES
Bluetooth mouse - YES
truck in server room - NO

and per phrontist:
cosmic background radiation - NO
Solar sunspot activity - NO

Is it unreasonable to expect most people would give similar answers, making for a viable definition of the boundaries of the internet?
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 6:08 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Surely everyone here has had that one moment when you open up your mailbox and take a look and see some spam that isn't really spam...there's no link, there's no mention of any product, there's no "hey, !"...instead, there is a short paragraph of jumbled text which seems to be trying to say something metaphysical, but not quite.
And just for a second, a split second of superstitious lunacy, you think to yourself "What if...?"

posted by nightchrome at 6:11 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

a superorganism of computation with its own emergent behaviors

Emergent behavior has also been observed in road traffic - but that doesn't make it an organism. I think there are more parallels to the Internet with road traffic, than with organic life.
posted by stbalbach at 6:12 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

crap, I didn't escape "hey, <yournamehere>!"
posted by nightchrome at 6:12 PM on October 26, 2008

oh please...
posted by mr dodo at 7:06 PM on October 26, 2008

We have so many half-done signups because it wants a Metafilter account but it doesn't have five bucks.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:32 PM on October 26, 2008

I, for one...apparently have no choice but to accept...

There are some organisms that are huge like Oregon's King Honey Fungus (Armillaria ostoyae), the world's largest known living organism, stretches 3.5 miles across, is estimated to be 2,400 years old (give or take a year), and covers an area as large as 1,665 football fields. I don't know that they're technically superorganisms.
Apparently humans sort of are, what with the symbiotic bacteria and whatnot.

Now that I think of it tho, this talk of 'superorganisms' does remind me a bit of that 'X-Files' episode 'Field Trip.'

But of course, that was about an organism that held you motionless for hours and hours while it controlled your senses, monopolized your time and beguiled you with a false reality that seemed meaningful, but in fact was....

Huh, y'know, maybe this guy's on to something.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:34 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Inanimate Objection:
NATURE OF ABERRATION: Believes inanimate objects display active hostility. This is not directed at himself personally. In fact, he believes he can circumvent it more readily than most, but expresses concern for safety of the human race. Discusses this belief with scholarship and detachment.
Appropriately enough, the story is missing one page, but that just proves the point.
posted by cenoxo at 7:36 PM on October 26, 2008

I thought it was more or less self-evident that this was happening. The deadline for it to become fully conscious is 12/21/2012.
posted by muckster at 7:42 PM on October 26, 2008

This is why we should be nice to machines, because one day they'll rule the world.

We should at least be cooperative.
posted by homunculus at 7:48 PM on October 26, 2008

Personally, I tend to side on the pragmatics of modeling with regards to understanding. A super-organism it may fail to be as regards any necessary/sufficient criteria, but if we focus on the information and correlation, then there might be something to this net-bug. Either way, there's certainly something abstract that is the interweb, and it may have a quality of emergence that is telling of the human "super-organism".

However, I suggest that if there's a net-bug, it's not going to be the whole thing-- emails, texts, my blog, etc. It's going to be encapsulated only by it's effects, not it's links.

*just a quick response, not labored over-- just tossing an idea to the pack*
posted by quanta and qualia at 8:06 PM on October 26, 2008

Free World Order (and others),

As the author of said article I am very interested in what kind of evidence would persuade you of the presence of any level of a global superorganism. What would you need to agree to Level I, II, II or IV? The more specific the evidence, the better. I am not as interested in how improbably/unlikely it is, as in what would the evidence be?

Some folks dismiss global self-organization of any type as categorically impossible based on a religious feeling, or some other unexplained faith. I don't have much to say to them.

I am much more interested in coming up with a set of evidence we can agree on would indicated something was happening. If the evidence never occurred I would concede the absence of a superorganism. So what falsifiable (measureable) evidence would convince you, of say Level III presence?
posted by kk at 8:20 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

i like to think that when all the telephones ring, you'll be connected to your soul mate. either that, or a test tone that's perfectly calibrated to your brain's natural frequencies in such a way that it causes your head to explode. when it happens i'm just going to let it go to voicemail.

and yeah, nightchrome, i've been getting those emails too...and one i's hard to explain, but it spoke to my subconcious in a way that was truly unsettling. it was from someone named 'rumford Banks' (little r, big B) was like something out of snow crash...goosebumps, i got...then i googled the text and found out it was from 'war and peace'...i really gotta read that book...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:41 PM on October 26, 2008

stbalbach: This article also made me think about the road-traffic-as-emergent-organisms article that I read a while back.

I dug it up; it was on K5 back in 2003: "Traffic Zoology" by CheeseburgerBrown.
They are liquid, semi-visible goliaths that rage through the streams and chunks of ordinary traffic, with the effervescent tendrils of mile-long tails whipping behind them like Chinese dragons. Though composed of hundreds of pounds of steel, glass and plastic, they are able to pass through solid objects. They are bound by the laws of the highway, but not by any conventional notion of time or space.

They are Aggregate Traffic Animals: a menagerie of emergent beasts drawn from the interacting behaviours of many individual human beings driving many individual cars with many individual goals, their collective activity giving rise to something with greater presence, power and purpose than the sum of its constituents.


[I]f you are able to de-emphasise the organism itself you are free to appreciate the idea of beaver ponds as artificial lakes generated by beaver genes, or to see a spider's web as an arrangement of silk drawn by DNA. By extending the lines with which we bound the traditional phenotype, we define new organisms, merging technology and individuals into communities the same way that ancient micro-organisms interacting inside bilipid membranes fell into symbiotic lockstep dances to found the first stable cells.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:10 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by IvoShandor at 11:24 PM on October 26, 2008

Super organisms are made up of normal organisms. And even though "organism" is a bit of a fuzzy term, I think most people will agree that personal computers are not organisms.
posted by afu at 2:18 AM on October 27, 2008

I'm not bothered about the internet, but I do worry a bit about what will happen when the complexity of the global plumbing system finally reaches the point where it acquires consciousness. The shit will really hit the fan.
posted by Phanx at 2:33 AM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

So what falsifiable (measureable) evidence would convince you, of say Level III presence?
Speaking only for myself here.

Autonomy would be something separate from human endeavor. For example, learning to spell would not be autonomous as it is dependent upon humans. I grant that it may be a "super-organism" behavior, but it would be a human-hive behavior, as it is impossible without humans. Autonomy to me would be that the machine "learns" without human input. And one way that autonomy may be observed is by observations of unexpected behavior; such as an unexpected message suddenly being transmitted, or a message with unexpected content.

I think my problem is that the intelligent super-organism focus of the article is at the content layer of the internet, and I can't think of any content that is not generated by humans, nor any content that is consumed by computational resources that are used to understand the content. Content is interesting to us, but I don't really see it being that useful to an internet organism. I think that if an internet organism were to arise, it would be at the networking layer, this is the layer where packet routing determinations are made. Here information is passed from machine to machine for machine processing, and you really can and do get emergent behavior. But the behavior is closely watched by humans and aberrant behavior is eliminated. To get a bit pseudo-sciency, the evolutionary pressures on the organism are to be predictable and static (static in the sense that the behavior is reproducible). Keeping to the darwinian theme, the computational system is rife with agents that seek out and destroy any behavior that is not understood, erratic, or spontaneous. These agents are reportedly fueled by Mountain Dew and work in long continuous spurts until they are almost near collapse.

I realize this is more of a ramble than a cogent treatise, but my main point is that the current internet may provide an avenue for hive/colony/super-human behaviors to arise, but not autonomy separate from humans. I do agree its kinda fun to do the HAL/skynet hypothesizing though.
posted by forforf at 4:14 AM on October 27, 2008

Yeah and Microsoft are the Borg.
posted by dollyknot at 5:13 AM on October 27, 2008

The funny thing is that you don't realize that the Internet is self-aware and that it populates message boards and blogs with its own investigative agents, participating in discussions, offering advice, attempting humor and learning to construct arguments.

No we don't.
posted by The Whelk at 6:11 AM on October 27, 2008

It's okay. It won't last long, what with 4chan being the cancer killing the Internet and all.

I think 4chan and other deliberately retarded meme-generator cultures are more like the Coca Cola spilling on the keyboard of our collective unconsciousness. Call it Unpunctuated Equilibrium!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:52 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

kk: I had forgotten you were a mefite. Big fan of a lot of your work (Quantified Self and Cooltools are some of my most anticipated feeds).

I am much more interested in coming up with a set of evidence we can agree on would indicated something was happening. If the evidence never occurred I would concede the absence of a superorganism. So what falsifiable (measureable) evidence would convince you, of say Level III presence?

I guess what I'm taking issue with is whether a "Level III presence" is an intelligible concept. If you asked me what would be needed to convince me that some numbers were salty, or if you talked about a four sided triangle, I couldn't really give you any criteria to further the discussion. I guess you could say I take a position analagous to moral non cognitivism on artificial intelligence as outlined in your article, amongst other similar propositions.

So basically, I think the responsibility lies with you to describe a "Level III presence" in terms of observable events. The idea needs to "pay rent".
posted by phrontist at 8:11 AM on October 27, 2008

What nickyskye said. It's a reworking of the Gaia Hypothesis—which is not actually a hypothesis (not even a bad hypothesis), but an extremely strained analogy that means nothing but makes hippies feel like they have some scientific credibility.
posted by greenie2600 at 9:34 AM on October 27, 2008

What nickyskye said. It's a reworking of the Gaia Hypothesis—which is not actually a hypothesis (not even a bad hypothesis), but an extremely strained analogy that means nothing but makes hippies feel like they have some scientific credibility.

I wouldn't say I subscribe to the Gaia Hypothesis. I've never actually read it. But having tripped on psychedelics more than once in beautiful and profound natural locations, I've definitely had moments where I've felt that good ole mother earth was just that, a vast living intelligence system - a sentient being.

And no. I'm not, nor never have been a hippie. The Clash trumps the Grateful Dead ... every time.
posted by philip-random at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2008

An interesting counterpoint (sort of) is Bot Mediated Reality a Long Now talk about either a different or (I suspect) an intermediate path that interconnectivity could take.
posted by Skorgu at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2008

We may make a mistake by trying to impute a human-like ego on a system that never had any reason to develop one. Because the human mind is the only type of mind we're familiar with, we think anything that looks like it might be a mind must operate in the same way--it must have goals and desires, a sense of itself as being individuated, a need for power and control and a fear of being threatened or destroyed, etc. And yet, these characteristics developed in humans as a response to a particular type of competitive evolutionary environment. There's no particular reason they would need to apply.

I mean, we can anthropomorphize anything. We can talk about what a forest wants, or what the human race as a whole wants. I could say, my car is making a noise in order to manipulate me into taking it to the mechanic in order to ensure its own survival.

The question is, whether such views are more helpful than they are misleading. Even trying to make it falsifiable may not exactly be possible: it's like asking, "What will convince you that the thing I'm pointing it when I say 'this is a house' is really a house?" The 'house' concept is useful in some ways--it stops us from having to constantly talk about 'that wood-framed thingamajig over there', and yet it's misleading in some ways, too (it creates an exaggerated idea of permanence and separateness from other phenomena).

But I suspect what we're really trying to do here is sneak in the view that "this thing is going to act kind of like a human." Yes, the 'level IV' section talks about how we should be careful to assume that it may not act like a human, but by considering the superorganism to have a self, goals, intention, purpose, etc. we are already imputing a human-like view, which may be very inapplicable and misleading.

"We don't see things as they are; we see them as we are."
posted by dixie flatline at 10:58 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

SDB covered this (thoroughly natch) [1,2] awhile ago :P
Will we develop artificial intelligences based on silicon? I don't know, and I'm quite serious about that. I'm not certain it will ever happen, and I don't think it will happen soon. The first rigorous work on the entire question of artificial intelligence was done by Alan Turing, who proposed what we now know of as the Turing Test. More or less, it was an attempt to deal with the basic question, "Can computers think?"

What Turing proposed was that if it were possible to create a machine whose behavior so closely emulated that of a human that an observer could not, after extended observation, determine whether a given being was human or machine, then the difference between "thought" and whatever it is that the machine did would no longer be important.

The result is often misquoted as "...then computers will have achieved the ability to think", but Turing was not so careless or incautious. Turing was trying to work around the fact that there exists no rigorous consensus definition of "thought", and therefore it was both impossible and pointless to even contend that computers were thinking. Turing attempted to describe an objective and unambiguous criterion for a certain level of capability of machine performance that didn't require any consensus definition of "thought".

Since then, researchers have worked on various approaches to artificial intelligence, including concentration on specific functions like recognition of objects or the ability to understand spoken language, and the ability to perform certain specialized kinds of high level decision making (e.g. playing chess). But all attempts to develop more general and versatile artificial cognition were spectacular failures, and what has emerged is a cautious conclusion: true intelligence probably can't be based solely on deductive processes. True intelligence probably requires inductive reasoning. Somewhat more speculatively: true intelligence may not be possible in any deterministic system. True intelligence may require some controlled degree of indeterminism in system execution.

In other words, true intelligence may be analog, not digital.

None of this has been proved, but the case at least that induction is indispensable is looking better and better, and induction by its nature includes a degree of analog calculation, which neurons represent using pulse code modulation. Can a digital simulation of those analog components serve the purpose? (as could be implemented on existing commercial computer designs, none of which use pulse code modulation?)

Not known, but because of the problem of the "butterfly effect" I'm skeptical. Digital simulations of analog systems always include small initial errors, and as digital calculations iterate ever more deeply, that error grows until the error swamps the signal, at which point the digital simulation will have no greater than a random chance of being the same as the analog system it is trying to simulate.

If that's the case, then no amount of digital hardware, no matter how fast, parallel or well connected, can ever really be intelligent in the way that we are, with the degree of capability and versatility we have. I cannot say for certain that's the case, but I have a strong suspicion that it is...

Computer systems may be developed which can pass the Turing test over a brief period when behavior is restricted to a small intellectual realm (e.g. half an hour of discussion about the plays of Shakespeare) but none which would pass given an extensive examination with no limits at all on material. Until such time as we develop an entirely new computing technology (possibly PCM based) which is truly analog but not limited in the way that early analog computers were limited, then I think a true artificial intelligence will not appear.

Whatever "true intelligence" might mean, if it means anything at all.

However, that doesn't mean that we will not see superhuman intelligences appear soon. For though I don't think it is likely that the internet will make possible even a human-level artificial intelligence, it may make possible creation of a human hive-mind that transcends the intelligence of an individual human.

Networking of computers won't do it, but networking of humans might.
posted by kliuless at 3:57 PM on October 27, 2008

I'd say that the One Machine was "smart" if, given some goal which it does not have any established method of achieving, and given no guidance from any other smart entity (not even the humans that form the Machine's internal organs), the Machine finds a way to achieve the goal. If there existed a computer program or whatever that could be fed a specification of (for example) the Riemann zeta function along with the hypothesis, and after some amount of churning turn out a legit proof, then that would be a smart machine. Computers can already do this in a limited sort of way--they're very good at chess, for example, but that's because they've been specially programmed to look n turns ahead and pick the course of action that leads to the most possible good positions, they didn't arrive at this approach themselves. The One Machine should be able to arrive at an approach on its own.

I'd say that the One Machine was "conscious" in the sense of self-aware if it were to self-bind. That is, it should know that in the future it will make a bad decision, and therefore take some action in the present that will avert the bad decision. For example I used to take a nap every afternoon, after which I'd be totally useless until the next morning; so I started taking a drink of coffee with every lunch, and now I don't take those naps anymore. Of course, this assumes that the Machine can make "decisions," and what are those? How do we detect them? I don't have an answer.

Oh, and in order to be either conscious or autonomous, this Machine needs to have an agenda that it pursues consistently. I can't think of a way to test for that, though. When a person has an agenda, you can tell what it is by looking at their actions and seeing what ends they serve, but there's no way (that I know of) to empirically determine whether a person is serving a particular goal on purpose or by accident, so testing whether a distributed intelligence is doing it would be very difficult.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:58 PM on October 27, 2008

As the author of said article I am very interested in what kind of evidence would persuade you of the presence of any level of a global superorganism. What would you need to agree to Level I, II, II or IV? The more specific the evidence, the better. I am not as interested in how improbably/unlikely it is, as in what would the evidence be?

I'll try to be a bit more constructive this time, though by the end I'm not very coherent anymore.

The problem is still with the concept of superorganism. I'd see it more as a explanatory stance (in Dennett's sense) than a biological fact. The difference between those biological species that can be better understood as superorganisms and those that can be better understood as individuals aiming to procreate is not between two natural types, but between two stances that the observer can take to explain some aspects of behaviour. A sports commentator is a good example of switching between explaining actions as teams/superorganisms and individuals.

Trying to build a natural type called superorganisms where something either belongs or does not belong to it (aka building a class which can be tested, or have evidence for) seems to me to be full of problems. For example, if we take 'colony as a necessity for procreation' to be the difference between superorganism and plain organism, then many common organisms are somewhere very close to being superorganism: they need modified environments, nests, flocks or social structures for their children to actually survive. If separated, they get eaten or succumb to environment. The activities of the individuals are not directly beneficial for their offspring, for most of the time, but if the other members of the flock lack these activities, it will be bad for individual's offspring, when and if their time comes. I don't see much difference between this and the most typical examples of superorganisms. Naked mole rats, for example are still physically capable to procreate as individuals, they are just seen as the most superorganistic of mammals, as they depend a bit more to their colony system than other social mammals.

In other words, much of the perceiving something as a superorganism is perceiving individuals to be well adjusted for social living but badly adjusted for surviving alone. Perceiving them as having traits that make sense and seem useful in a context, but seem senseless when that context is taken away. When I generalize this well-adjusted behaviour as making sense in a context, suddenly every organism fits into that description -- we are just not always looking at the right context. Switching viewpoint from one organism to society of organisms is a big and meaningful step for us, but it is not so in nature, where the context just is. Every creature is adjusted to its surroundings, even if these surroundings are mostly made of creatures with the same genotype.

In short, if nature doesn't make a distinction between organism and superorganism, then finding evidence or making a diagnostic test for something being either is futile. The question is if internet is best viewed as a manufactured organism or a manufactured superorganism or something else. I tend to think that treating internet as an organism hides more features than it reveals. Laws of biology are not good at explaining why one continent has more iPhones than other. Populations of organisms spread around autonomously and adjust to environments with slow random selection. Populations of machinery spread because of humans and follow human laws of economy. Features and capabilities of internet as whole do not resemble features and capabilities of any known organism, unless we go Gaia/ocean/Solaris way. I agree that the autonomous of internet is easy to achieve, by increasing self-repair and self-adjusting mechanisms of network nodes. Autonomousness requires only self-preservation (which doesn't need a sense of self, if we accept that bacteria and like have no sense of self, but mechanisms of self-preservations) and self-modification according to environment. If self-modifying system is left to survive unobserved in an environment that requires increasing complexity, the resulting system will probably be complex enough and so distinct from the original, that the original 'seed' is too far for us to see, and we have no option but to see the thing as other, and if we cannot predict its behaviour anymore, as autonomous other.

If autonomous is defined this way, an autonomous superorganism would result from a perception shift from an autonomous node into autonomous network. Can we see any situation where perceiving autonomous network instead of autonomous node would give us any advantage for understanding or communicating with it? If we have a network of computers where every machine simulates a part of a brain, then of course the computer-person we'd like to meet is the whole network, parts would be unintelligible for us. But here, like with other organisms, the price of the shifting viewpoint is that the network is seen as one, and its behaviour is not so super anymore for us. Like we see people and their intestinial bacteria as one.

Autonomous superorganisms live in a treshold of our understanding: it would be something whose next action we cannot reliably predict or understand, but whose actions we understand better when we observe it as a whole instead of its parts. The initial use for concept of superorganism is to describe these kinds of situations. Once we have made the shift, the super- becomes unnecessary. Smart is as smart does something unpredictable that we think is difficult. Calculating big numbers is no longer smart, but getting a captcha right is (for a computer). Checking spelling is not smart, checking style is. Diagnostic test for smart is very much tied to our current understanding about what is state of the art in artificial smartness. Combining smartness and autonomous survival can result in pretty much anything, as the needs and how to fill them are so different for a part of network. However, spreading to the whole network and trying to maximize it is one goal that many parts of the internet are actively trying to prevent, and these parts have humans helping them.

El Goog will have a monopoly of smarts and growth only if we assume that there are no other organisms there and assuming internet as one superorganism entails that. But then a chosen perception of a superorganism would hide the multitudes of other possible organisms. And there are no good reasons for transferring typical biological competition for limited resources into the internet: its growth in processing power and storage can easily make having resources to a non-issue in adaptation, and we can always make adaptation and survival to secondary goal to something else. How and why to compete for an area that expands faster than you can use? Why expand endlessly? A test for autonomous smart superorganism would be to see how much of its capabilities it can present in a separated network. It will know more about us than we know about it, as knowledge about us is where it lives. It will know what we have written about consciousness. It will take the initiative or make itself known. If it doesn't want to communicate, it can hide as long as it wants. If these notions don't apply to it, it probably isn't anything we could recognize as conscious. Then the difference between conscious organism and conscious superorganism would be even more irrelevant.
posted by Free word order! at 4:30 PM on October 27, 2008

For instance, in 2002 researchers analyzed some 300 million packets on the internet to classify their origins. They were particularly interested in the very small percentage of packets that passed through malformed. Packets (the message’s envelope) are malformed by either malicious hackers to crash computers or by various bugs in the system. Turns out some 5% of all malformed packets examined by the study had unknown origins – neither malicious origins nor bugs. The researchers shrug these off. The unreadable packets are simply labeled “unknown.” Maybe they were hatched by hackers with goals unknown to the researches, or by bugs not found. But a malformed packet could also be an emergent signal. A self-created packet. Almost by definition, these will not be tracked, or monitored, and when seen shrugged off as “unknown.”
If I were looking for evidence of a superorganism, I'd look for emergent behavior that increases the survivability of the system. Emergent behavior by itself doesn't mean much, it has to be oriented in a non-random direction to convince me. When I see something along the lines of ant colonies that self-organize cooling systems and graveyards for dead bodies, that would be meaningful evidence to me. This was not a well-written piece, IMO. Kevin Kelly was one of the people I learned about emergence from, he knows better.
posted by scalefree at 4:34 PM on October 27, 2008

How To Build The Global Mind
posted by homunculus at 11:07 AM on October 28, 2008

Towards a Wiki For Formally Verified Mathematics Finds Optimal 25-Mark Golomb Ruler
posted by kliuless at 8:33 PM on October 28, 2008

Thanks, Free Word Order, that was the most helpful response I've gotten yet. I appreciate the time you took in composing it. I basically agree with you: I think those are valid criteria -- as valid as any others.

I also appreciate the comments of others. As everyone has noted, much rests on definitions. It is impossible to scientifically measure something you can't define. As I said at the start we don't have very good definitions for life, mind, intelligence, organism or superorganism, consciousness. It's been a hurdle for many decades. And will be for many more. My hunch is that we will get more accomplished (in terms of understanding and use) by jumping over to evidential thresholds, even though we don't have precise definitions. Maybe that won't work. But I do know this, we won't get anywhere by waiting for a consensual definition first.
posted by kk at 1:06 AM on October 29, 2008

« Older Rule 10a-1, otherwise known as the uptick rule, pr...  |  It started in 1956... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments