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 superorganism of computation with its own emergent behaviors” (Kelly). He defines this “One Machine” as the emerging superorganism 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 “superorganism” 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 bottlenecked 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 superorganism, 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.
What is evolution and what does our technology have to do with it? For that matter, what is technology? Because we characterize all technologies relative to the domain in which we necessitate its use, it eludes strict definition. A technology can be material, like tools and machines, or an immaterial system, organizational method, or technique. Capitalism, democracy, and carpentry are technologies just as much as a hammer, a computer, or a skyscraper. However, when thinking of technology in terms of evolution, we can quantify physical matter much more objectively than mental constructs. If evolution denotes change through time, then it is useful to define technology as the manifestation of mankind’s ability to manipulate matter on increasingly smaller scales.
Imagine what the first material technology might have been for early humans. Most likely, it was nothing more than a rock, a stick, or, as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a bone. By today’s standards, we consider these objects part of the natural world, not technologies; however, technological evolution necessarily begins with our manipulation of such natural objects. Through time, we integrate different parts of the physical world with themselves to create new forms of complexity, which become the stepping stones to even higher forms of complexity. The result is a gradual shift from smashing together rocks and sticks composed of trillions of trillions of atoms to nanotechnology: controlling matter with atomic precision. Equally significant, an international team of scientists made a major breakthrough recently in quantum computing, the “holy grail” of computing, by storing information at the nucleus of an atom for about 1.75 seconds, putting us on track to have the software to go with the hardware (NSF).
These advancements in information technology, including the expansion of the Internet and the rise in computing speed, capacity, and bandwidth, reflect a certain evolutionary trend evident not only in the history of technology, but throughout the history of the universe itself. In his 2001 essay The Law of Accelerating Returns, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts technological paradigm shifts will continue to become increasingly common, leading to “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history” (Kurzweil). The exponential growth of technological progress, which The Law of Accelerating Returns describes as an outgrowth and continuation of biological evolution, will have far-reaching implications for the future of humanity in the coming years.
Evolution works through indirection by applying positive feedback to the methods most capable of continuing the process. Consequently, each paradigm in the universe’s history of evolution provides the means for the creation of the next paradigm (Kurzweil). After the Big Bang and the emergence of the four fundamental forces of the universe, quantum bits of reality could form the elementary particles which could then form the first atoms. The next paradigm followed when those atoms coalesced into the first stars where tremendous gravity and enormous heat applied enough pressure to fuse the atoms together and create new chemical elements. Once there was no fuel left to consume, the stars exploded and sent the new elements back into space to aid the creation of the next paradigm: planets. Earth, one such planet, provided the dynamic geological platform supported by the Sun’s continually radiating energy necessary to sustain cellular life: the biological paradigm.
From this point forward, Kurzweil explains, “The subsequent emergence of DNA provided a digital method to record the results of evolutionary experiments. Then, the evolution of a species who combined rational thought with an opposable appendage (i.e., the thumb) caused a fundamental paradigm shift from biology to technology.” Kurzweil goes on to suggest that the biological and technological paradigms will merge, as paradigms have done throughout the history of the universe, to create a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking. This new paradigm will occur once we reverse-engineer the human brain and supplement our own biology with nanotechnology (Kurzweil). This inevitable fusion will be the culmination of a technological paradigm whose evolution has long since overshadowed that of the life which perpetuates its creation.
Some might argue that this merger takes technology too far, that creating technological intelligence by augmenting our biology is “playing God,” or that the whole process is simply “unnatural.” On the contrary, what could be more natural than continuing to fulfill the destiny of life: to use everything at its disposal to sustain its existence as optimally and for as long as possible? The existence of an omniscient, omnipotent God will likely be disputed for as long as there are humans to dispute it.
On the other hand, that anyone with the capability and willpower to understand the process of evolution will believe its existence is a foregone conclusion. If there is a God, He most definitely created evolution with the knowledge that conscious-awareness of the process would manifest in beings with His powers to control the physical universe and facilitate the evolution of evolution itself. Perhaps God is guiding the evolution of the universe. Perhaps the universe is evolving towards becoming God. While mind-boggling to consider, neither possibility seems far-fetched in a far-fetched universe.
Kelly, Kevin. “Evidence of a Global Superorganism.” The Technium. Oct. 2008. KK.org. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/ archives/2008/10/ evidence_of_a_g.php>.
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” The Singularity. Mar. 2001. KurzweilAI.net. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.kurzweilai.net/arti cles/art0134.html? printable=1>.
NSF. “World’s Smallest Storage Spacethe Nucleus of an Atom.” News. Oct. 2008. National Science Foundation. 1 Nov. 2008 <http://www.nsf.gov/news/ news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=112538&govDel=\USNSF_51>.