Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Life begins at 40 (possibly)

Much comment flows on the subject of the internet entering middle age this year. BoingBoing has some entertaining video material on the web's birth 40 years ago at the University of California and other internet milestones.

New Scientist magazine takes a more contemplative approach in its birthday feature. Defining the internet as very much a work in progress, it poses a series of searching questions, including whether the net is capable of becoming self-aware.

"It might already have a degree of consciousness," is the view of Ben Goertzel, chair of the Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute, who likens the internet to the human brain. Francis Heylighen, who studies consciousness and artificial intelligence at the Free University of Brussels, suggests that adding consciousness to the web is "more a matter of fine-tuning and increasing control ... than a jump to a wholly different level." What might this produce? For Heylighen a self-aware internet could strive to become better at what it does and fill gaps in its own knowledge and abilities. Goertzel takes an optimistic view of this potential: "The outlook for humanity is probably better in the case that an emergent, coherent and purposeful internet mind develops."

All this could happen within a decade, according to Heylighen. In which case 50 could be a very special birthday indeed.

Global Villager wonders why the experts seem so sure a self-aware internet would be of one mind? Could a multiplicity of senses develop, raising the possibility of internal conflict?

If we can now fight wars with pilot-less planes maybe the internet will take control of whole areas of our lives, like assessing our health or organising parts of our memory?

What would Descartes have made of all this? I compute, therefore I am?

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