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?