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Science and Technology

September 25, 2012

Slate: Will the Internet become self-aware?

(Continued)

TORONTO —

In a phone interview, Koch noted that 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.

That doesn't mean that 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 color 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."

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