That doesn’t mean any physical system is automatically conscious – only that it has the potential to be conscious. It has to have sufficient complexity, and it has to be connected in just the right way. Does the internet meet those criteria?
“Even today it might ‘feel like something’ to be the internet,” Koch says. Each computer feels nothing, of course, but the totality of the internet may be more than the sum of its parts. “That’s true for my brain, too. One of my nerve cells feels nothing – but put it together with 100 billion other nerve cells, and suddenly it can feel pain and pleasure and experience the colour blue.”
Would its first instinct to be to kill off those pesky humans, as Skynet was so quick to do? Not necessarily. Our own evolution is an ongoing struggle that began some 2 billion years ago (if you start the clock when we were blue and green algae). By comparison, the internet of today is more like a newborn baby. “It may not have any of the survival instincts that we have,” Koch says. “It did not evolve in a world ‘red in tooth and claw’, to use Tennyson’s famous expression.”
Should the internet achieve consciousness, it will – at least at first – be “utterly naive to the world”. On the other hand, the internet has only existed for a couple of decades. “So who knows where it will be 20 years from now.”
Of course, science fiction writers have already explored this territory – not just in shoot-’em-ups like the Terminator films, but in more cerebral works like Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy. In WWW: Wake, the world wide web wakes up – and, after a learning curve, becomes the planet’s smartest entity.
Eerily, as Koch speculated on what the internet might “feel”, he described a scenario straight out of Sawyer’s trilogy (which he had not heard of until I mentioned it). Should there be a large power failure somewhere in the world, Koch said, a conscious internet could experience the equivalent of “pain”. In WWW: Wake (published in 2009), the Chinese government shuts down a swath of the internet to cover up a particularly nasty incident it desperately wants to hide. The still-nascent Webmind “feels” all that cutting and severing and doesn’t like it.
The WWW trilogy is a work of fiction, but for Sawyer, it’s a plausible picture of what lies ahead in our wired world. We can’t pin down the date when the internet surpasses our brains in complexity, he says, “but clearly it is going to happen at some point”.
The Australian Financial Review
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