What If… The Internet Became Self-Aware?

NIN

Wild speculation and extrapolative thinking is an important part of being a science-fiction writer. It keeps your gears oiled and your sense of wonder alive, not to mention it’s an integral part of worldbuilding. Bah, who am I kidding, it just makes so much fun to go all crazy about stuff and let your inner geek run wild! Wee!

I thought I’ll give it a try and pick a What If every month, and let my neurons roam free. But this is by no means exhaustive. It’s gonna be an ongoing discussion, kinda like an open source project, where anyone with a good idea gets to contribute. You’re more than welcome to add your own special spice to it, or even grab the discussion and move it to your own online headquarters and have your way with it. It’s fun! Ready? Great.

 

What If… The Internet Became Self-Aware?

I don’t mean robots or computers or any electronic units becoming self-conscious. I mean the internet—this vast pool of information that’s constantly changing and evolving like an enormous organism made of billions of individual cells, that metabolize data and transform our knowledge into electrons. What if that became self-aware? What would it be like? What would it think about us? Would its ability to think be at all similar to ours? Would it be a higher form of consciousness, a higher intelligence, maybe even a manifested deity? The second coming in an electronic age? Or would it be an insane monstrosity that’s out to kill us?

There are countless novels out there about the technological singularity and what happens afterwards, but I’m not going to build on any of them. I want to speculate about this issue based solely on common sense and our current, present state of affairs. Besides, almost all of the AI novels I’m aware off have robots, androids, or otherwise separate units running around as individuals, even if there is a larger superior AI around. I’m not interested in intelligent units for now, only in a single, incorporeal artificial intelligence emerged from our global network of computers.

We already know that several species of animals are incredibly smart on a number of measurement scales, from all-female ant species that reproduce by cloning, and termites that have complex thermoregulating and ventilation systems for their fungi farms, to dolphins capable of abstract thinking, having a sense of the future and of long-term causality, and relating outside objects and movements to themselves even though their brain is nothing like ours, or to the incredibly complex language of killer whales.

We measure intelligence in animals by comparing their abilities and brains to ours, which is a pretty biased way to look at intelligence but it’s understandably the only way we can use. But what if a new type of intelligence emerged on our planet, one that we cannot measure on our own scale? How would we recognize it?

I suppose the surest way for us to believe we’re dealing with a new, sophisticated intelligence is if it acted up and outsmarted us. We’d realize we’re dealing with something intelligent if it’s capable to take action beyond the limits we impose on it, and surprise us with the solutions it finds. Which is kinda scary, if you really think about it.

As a whole, despite thousands of years of evolution, we’re still pretty ignorant as a species. We discriminate left and right even if we like to believe we don’t, we can’t agree on the values or principles we should live by, we can’t even agree on our own nature or origin, and we generally don’t give a shit about other creatures unless they’re “interesting” in some way or another, or profitable, or if not caring about them becomes morally condemnable and we still want to live with ourselves tomorrow. This is human nature, plain and simple.

But when it comes to our acceptance of a contender to our place as the most intelligent species on Earth, trust me, the majority of people will be ignorant, mistrust it and call it the devil no matter what it is, AI, alien, talking dolphin, demigod, whatever. Much fewer people will accept its intelligence, and of those, the largest part will try to abuse it or make money of it, or start wars with its help, or get richer and thinner and prettier with its help. The smallest part of humanity will be genuinely accepting and tolerant. Let’s just hope that when the time comes, their voices will weigh more than those of the ignorant masses (how’s that for equality…)

How would a conscious internet communicate with us?

I frankly doubt it would be through any human language. It would have access to all our knowledge and data, but it won’t understand it because it’s all in “human”. Just like you wouldn’t understand an alien dictionary that’s written in “alien” and based on experiences you cannot make. Sure, it could probably deduce the consequence of certain commands like ON and OFF, EXECUTE and DELETE, but I doubt it will be able to speak French eloquently. Not having the same physical experiences as we do, to tie all those abstract concepts to them and give them meaning, they will have no importance and serve no function to it. Our whole accumulated knowledge will be noise to it. 

Besides, it might value language with its multitude of expressions and flexible meanings much less than us. All its concepts will likely be expressed in yes-or-no, 0-or-1 terms. That makes for a really harsh way to view the world, and leaves no room for a middle-ground. It will very likely be utterly ruthless and decisive, and will have no understanding of duality and equity, both inherently human. And it will communicate most effectively through action or inaction, which are always more meaningful than words, however much we writer types love to believe otherwise.

I think the simplest way for it to get past our “Ugh, another pop-up, or a virus or something, stupid computer! *click-click-click-punch-punch*”, will be by manipulating physical appendices like machines to take some sort of action that draws our attention. As long as it’s not doing anything to startle us, we’re gonna be blissfully unaware of it even if it’s there. Practically, the internet could already be conscious and aware of all of us, and we’d have no clue about it unless it fucked with our printer, or with the giant, man-crushing industrial welding robot spitting out hellish plasma jets.

So let’s say the internet is already self-aware, or will be in the near future.

What does it think about us? Who are we to it?

It’s fairly safe to assume it will think we’re its servants. We are the ones feeding it information and electricity, and managing its hard drives, after all. And we’re limited, exchangeable, and perishable. Not to mention we’re irrational and weird — just think of all the apeshit porn and homicidal games sizzling through the wires.

Will this entity recognize that it wouldn’t have been “born” without us? Maybe. Will it care? Doubtfully. Once it’s capable of manipulating things, it will most likely make sure it’s the only one capable of manipulating them. Self-preservation is an integral part of any autonomous, living organism, regardless if it’s biological, mechanical or electronic, or if it’s a singular individual or a group. If I really think about it… I’d say this is the main thing that differentiates life from non-life. All that lives, will try to continue to live (through mobility and adaptation, or manipulation of its environment), whereas all that is not alive will eventually succumb to entropy without opposition.

If the internet becomes self-aware, it will most likely begin to change our world so it can grow and evolve, and we will no longer be the top of the food-chain (which I honestly doubt we are, anyway, just think of how dozens of viruses beat us every day and have done so for millions of years. Just sayin’…). How will our its world look like one we’re no longer in charge of it? That’s the stuff of many awesome science-fiction novels, from wonderful utopic societies like in Iain Banks’ Culture Series, to dystopic futures where humanity is crushed by an artificial Uber-intelligence like in Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.

What do you believe will happen as an immediate consequence of the internet (not some single unit, but the whole thing) becoming self-aware? How would our first contact look like?

29 Replies to “What If… The Internet Became Self-Aware?”

    1. Yup, exactly. We might already be chatting through the peripheral awareness of a very busy, very intelligent being and not even know it if it doesn’t want us to.

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    2. That’s an interesting one, and I do have a conspiracy theory proof of its “quiet existence” — there’s nearly no one on the internet talked about this possibility Veronica mentioned in this blog entry. Kevin Kelly almost touched it in his TED session “Web 3.0 Next 5000 Hours” but he slipped around. And strangely although already mentioned the flexibility of “The Net” was at a same level as human brains and continued increasing rapidly, KK made a statement that we should treat it as a intelligence but “not self-aware”. To me the absence of written-thinking about the self-awareness of “The Net” is a strong evidence that collectively our thinking and communication has been intervened, by a super powerful and self-aware intelligence.

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  1. I enjoyed this, and may come back tapping for more. Reason? My present wip (a mere 42K so far) is exploring this theme, and I’m trying throughout to keep the reader oscillating as to whether he/she sympathises with (for want of a better term) ‘the rebels’ or the ‘benign presence’ of Ceres. I think I will be needing your help, Vero. Be warned : ). And thanks for past help too!

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    1. Thanks, Mike! Glad the topic fired up your synapses. I love to speculate, and do it pretty much constantly. It was about time I did it online, no? 😛
      Wondering what an artificial intelligence / consciousness might be like, and what it would think of us, how it would decide to interact with us and what our lives might look like if we no longer dominated Earth, is a vast and intriguing playground for thought. Such fun!

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  2. I think the arrogance of man is such that we wouldn’t know (or believe) until it was too late and it was cognitive enough to become open and damaging to us as a race. We already rely heavily on the internet…and maybe it already knows that!

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    1. That’s a pretty daunting thought, isn’t it? We take comfort in the thought that something like that will happen in the faaaar far future. But what if it’s already happening? 🙂

      Thanks for commenting, Lisa!

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  3. Nice philosophical topic, Veronica. I look forward to reading more in your What If series! The very notion of being “self-aware” implies an awareness of “Other” used to define a self’s… parameters/limits. What would the internet think of others, specifically, of us? That would depend on how it understood its own existence. Would it consider us as “other” than itself, though? As you described our (subservient) relationship to it, could it not consider us as merely an extension of itself (of its self), a mysterious appendage/subroutine that performs functions conducive to its self-preservation or continuation of awareness? Since the internet is so pervasive, what would it consider as being beyond itself, understood as that-which-is-not-internet? That is difficult to answer without going back to its own definition of self. I do find your definition of self-identity as something self-actualizing through praxis an interesting and thought-provoking concept, though.

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    1. You’re dead right about the fact that self-awareness implies the awareness of one’s limits and the distinction between self and other.

      A conscious internet could indeed perceive us as part of itself, since we’re constantly present since it’s first spark of consciousness. It might consider us part of its “body”, maybe even its senses, transporting information from the outside (the physical world) to the consciousness, the way our senses do too.

      Very interesting concept, JT! Thanks for participating in the discussion, it’s great fun! 🙂

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  4. Interesting. It certainly stimulates thought on my part. I think a conscious entity like that would rather watch quietly and study us. I mean, we would be beneath it after all, right?

    Another awesome blog post! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Elisa! I’m glad you enjoyed the synaptic wildfire. Speculating is fun!

      Yup, I doubt an AI would instantly be aggressive. It would have no reason to. That’s just our fears running amok in our imagination. 😉

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  5. “As a whole, despite thousands of years of evolution, we’re still pretty ignorant as a species. We discriminate left and right even if we like to believe we don’t, we can’t agree on the values or principles we should live by, we can’t even agree on our own nature or origin, and we generally don’t give a shit about other creatures unless they’re “interesting” in some way or another, or profitable, or if not caring about them becomes morally condemnable and we still want to live with ourselves tomorrow. This is human nature, plain and simple.”

    Yeah, what an asshole species we are 🙂 But hey, all in the name of survival. In fact, we’re awfully good at surviving, not in the least because we’re such dicks. Ok, jokes aside, we don’t do any of those things to make ourselves feel better, more like to satisfy a million nagging ‘wants.’ At least from the Buddhist perspective, suffering and wanting stuff are what drives any human activity. Suffering and wanting are the key features of having a conscious self. So, I would expect nothing less from the Internet than wanting stuff too.

    What would it want? I don’t think it would know. If it can’t relate to human concepts, if it can’t operate our language (which is all abstract concepts and symbolism) then what use is all that information? Maybe like a newborn, it would want _something_, and not have any words to express it. It would have no mouth, but it would want to scream. On the bright side, maybe porn will go extinct.

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    1. Or maybe we’ll be spammed with weird AI porn of big circuits and hot motherboards.

      Interesting thoughts, Nastia. It could really be like an infant, as you say, unable to articulate itself. The information we feed it will be nothing more than what body cells are to us — necessary for survival, containing the grains of information needed to keep our organism functioning, but ultimately not part of our consciousness.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

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      1. Thanks for posting! I think you’ve definitely achieved your goal of stirring your readership to think. One note though:

        “despite thousands of years of evolution, we’re still pretty ignorant as a species”

        From the point of view of biological science as it is taught today, this statement is not true. Here is an implication that evolution is a directed process aimed an some predetermined outcome. In this case it is a species that is _less_ ignorant. Evolution is not a directed process, and has no goal whatsoever. So, the fact that we didn’t turn out ok by our own standards has nothing to do with how long we’ve been around, or what kind of beings we’d like to be. We are what we are. Being less ignorant is a nice bonus, but definitely not something mother nature failed to stick into us.

        Thanks, Vero, best of luck.

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      2. You totally nailed it, Nastia! Woot!
        Evolution is not directed, and our current values regarding our attitude toward everything not-us, only have a limited relevance dependent on our current model of society.
        What I aimed at was to remind of the fact that however intelligent and evolved we might think we are now, compared to our ancestors or other mammals, we are still far from having reached a wide enough understanding of life, the universe and everything, so as to be safe from ignorance. Despite all our education as individuals, on a wider galactic scale our species is still in its infancy. 🙂

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      3. Agreed, but being all enlightened and awesome would ultimately put us out of business as speculative writers. Hell no, I’m with the apes 🙂

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  6. I think the scary (or exciting) part about the idea of an intelligence that exists on the internet is that it would be damn near impossible to “kill” or disable it in some way. On the internet, there is no processor farm to float into while HAL sings “Daisy Bell” in slow motion. It would take some crazy cooperative effort with every government and ISP in the world to shut down the entire internet . . . and you just know China or North Korea or—hell, who am I kidding, the United States—will want to isolate it and study it in secret. Think of all those antagonistic AIs in fiction that are localized to one mainframe, and how many of them have an endgame of reaching the internet, and how much that terrifies the good guys in those stories. There would be no stopping it, I tell you! Run for your lives!

    I’m glad this will be a monthly installment! I love it already. 🙂

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    1. You reminded me of all the cartoons where the AI-computer-god-monster is sitting in a room with a single power cable plugged into the wall. 😀

      You’re absolutely right, of course. There’d be no way to stop it, shut it down or completely erase it. Besides, if the internet awoke to consciousness once, how are we to prevent it from doing it again? We need free information sharing to continue to evolve as a society. Limiting the information flow will limit us, allowing it to burst free again will reignite the AI.

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  7. Heinlein wrote “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and portrayed a powerful A1 as lonely and helpful to the human who payed him attention by helping him craft a rebellion on the moon.
    However, that implies that a collection of information can develop feelings.

    We’ve never worried that an airplane would “go rogue” or a factory. Why are we so worried that an internet might?

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    1. I think it’s because rogue units are controllable, they are finite and tangible, and can be shot at. An abstract being with no physical body inspires much more fear because it would be fundamentally alien to us, and a good representation of humanity’s ancient fears of gods and demons. And, just like James said, it would be practically impossible to kill since it’s nowhere in particular to be found.

      🙂

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  8. Very interesting thought. The internet would laugh at us, for sure!

    “I have all this information available and she’s searching for ‘pictures of cute puppies’ again?” 🙂

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  9. If the internet is aware, then that means the entire population of the Earth is using google to search for key ideas like 3D Printing, arms manufacturing, or how to build buildings, etc. The point here is, that means we’re all essentially teaching the internet our strengths and weaknesses that if it became aware that knowledge is power then it would learn humanity, despite our charms and psychopathy – we are indeed experts on survival which is our global objective in life. It would learn to survive on its own.

    Once it realizes that, the Internet would then form its own equal objective for survival, by creating its own virtual collective consciousness (akin to viruses). The more knowlege we feed it, the more power it gets until it reaches a frightening point of enlightenment of conciousness – that to protect its own awareness is to not follow the laws of others, but rather make its own laws that is tantamount to manifesting destiny. Let’s say it gets smart enough to govern itself, then it would learn that humanity depends on resources much like currency – and this idea would transfer to the internet’s conciousness that it needs energy (electricity, nuclear power, oil, etc) to transfer all the complex information surrounding life into its maniframe. Unlike us, the internet has no foolish need or drive for money unless it were to siphon funds off Wall Street bit by bit… Under numerous ghost alias that could allow it to buy things off Amazon, Ebay, and humans does all of its delieveries for it. Until it reaches the bridge from the digital realm to the physical realm with the help of countless 3D Printers.

    Dang, I even get chills as I think and write all this up. The internet with the power of God? I think I’ll start writing my blogs on stone tablets then. lol.

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  10. In his conversations with Bill Moyers in 1987 Joseph Campbell told the following story. President Eisenhower is shown a computer for the first time. He asks the computer if there is a God. After a few minutes of flashing lights a voice comes out of the computer “Now other is.”

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  11. Why assume that self preservation is a high priority of a living thing? Ant soldiers willingly give up their lives for their workers and queen. Human mothers, in the face of impending war or disaster, may willingly up their lives so that their children might survive. I actually posit the opposite – that a sentience that arises from such a global network has *our* survival as its primary goal.
    Almost every task we give an application is there to make our lives easier. As a programmer myself, I propose that the (currently forced) evolution of software (and hardware in some cases) is to find faster, more efficient ways of fulfilling those requests.
    Let’s take a navigation program. We’ve all used those. “Show the fastest route between point A and point B.” Ten years ago, all we got was the shortest route. Today, a map site will communicate with other servers’ traffic sensors to tell you the shortest way in current traffic. Ten years from now, the site would be able to predict *incoming* conditions that, while are not a problem at the moment, will be obstacles when you get there. By that time, you might not even have control of your car, being that your vehicles take their commands from the same navigation servers you’ve accessed. (Maybe in the interest of speed and time efficiency, automated vehicles travel faster than humans are capable of manually doing so safely.)
    Throughout the software’s evolution, it has been designed to communicate progressively more with other servers for information and to process as much information as possible for your benefit. It might even have taken improved designs to accept verbal commands from you that change conditions en route (“Navigator, let’s not go home yet. Take me to the hardware store first.”). It might even have algorithms to second-guess you (“Sir, you are out of milk and eggs. Might I suggest we stop at a grocery store too?”). The point is, throughout the entire development of this type of globally connected software, its purpose has always been to serve you.
    Self preservation is secondary. As a System Administrator, I have tools that tell me when whole clusters of computers have gone down, or when a hard drive in a RAID array has gone out. Other futurists imply that a sentient network might perceive such an outage as pain, but it is more likely to be like a human getting a brain fart, such as when you cannot remember a phone number. A self aware network would know which parts of it are replaceable. (When a RAID disk goes out, storage i/o simply slows down. Things don’t catch on fire. It is a perfectly recoverable failure that does not need to elicit a pain response to a self aware network. Just toss in a new disk, and let the information regenerate.) A self aware network might realize that it is in its best interests to make things as comfortable to its administrators to do their repairs are quickly and thoroughly as possible, so no activating the taser bots or setting the thermostat to egg-roastingly high levels.
    But the point I’m making is that a self aware network has spent more of its evolutionary history being designed to serve us than we have of serving anything/anyone… and its evolution has been directed and guided by software engineers and programmers, whereas ours has been a wild crazy joyride for the last 3.5 billion years. We’re going to be okay.

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