In the world of sci-fi movie geekdom, August 29, 1997, was a turning point for humanity: on that day, according to the Terminator films, the network of US defence computers known as Skynet became self-aware – and soon launched an all-out genocidal war against Homo sapiens.
Fortunately, that date came and went with no such robo-apocalypse. But the 1990s did bring us the world wide web, which is now far larger and more “connected” than any nation’s defence network. Could the internet “wake up”? And if so, what sorts of thoughts would it think? And would it be friend or foe?
US neuroscientist Christof Koch believes we may soon find out – indeed, the complexity of the web may have already surpassed that of the human brain. In his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, published earlier this year, he makes a rough calculation: take the number of computers on the planet – several billion – and multiply by the number of transistors in each machine – hundreds of millions – and you get about a billion billion, written more elegantly as 10 to the 18th. That’s a thousand times larger than the number of synapses in the human brain (about 10 to the 15th).
Koch, who taught for more than 25 years at California Institute of Technology and is now chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, is known for his work on the “neural correlates” of consciousness – studying the brain to see what’s going on when we have specific conscious experiences. Of course, our brains happen to be soft, wet, and made of living tissue, while the internet is made up of metal chips and wires – but that’s no obstacle to consciousness, he says, so long as the level of complexity is great enough. (Most researchers working on artificial intelligence would agree the “substrate” doesn’t matter. That is, it makes no difference what the system is made of. Most philosophers, though not all, would agree.)
In a phone interview, Koch notes the kinds of connections that wire together the internet – its “architecture” – are very different from the synaptic connections in our brains. “But certainly by any measure it’s a very, very complex system. Could it be conscious? In principle, yes it can.”
Of course, there’s the tricky question of defining consciousness, but for our purposes it is enough to say that if an entity is conscious, then it “feels like” something to be that entity. Humans are conscious, at least while we’re awake. Apes and monkeys, perhaps most animals, likely have some degree of consciousness. (Koch, a dog lover, does not hesitate to include our canine companions.) How consciousness actually works is far less clear, but Koch – going somewhat out on a limb – declares it to be a fundamental property of the universe, akin to energy, mass and space.
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