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Science and Technology

September 25, 2012

Slate: Will the Internet become self-aware?

(Continued)

TORONTO —

Of course, the 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 J. Sawyer's "WWW" trilogy (the novels are titled "Wake," "Watch" and "Wonder"). In "Wake," the World Wide Web wakes up — and, after a bit of a learning curve, becomes the smartest entity on the planet.

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 "Wake" (published in 2009), the Chinese government shuts down an enormous swath of the Internet to cover up a particularly nasty incident that it desperately wants to hide from the rest of the world. The still-nascent Webmind "feels" all that cutting and severing — and doesn't like it:

No!

Not just small changes.

Not just flickerings.

Upheaval. A massive disturbance.

New sensations: Shock. Astonishment. Disorientation. And _

Fear.

The "WWW" trilogy is a work of fiction, but for Sawyer, it's a plausible picture of what lies ahead in our increasingly 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."

Even Koch admits that he doesn't lose any sleep over the possibility of the Internet waking up. Sawyer, however, sees the Web's continued growth as a very real potential threat. As the Web grows more and more complex, at an accelerating pace, there is inevitably a "tipping point," he says. "There is a point after which you can't do anything about it. Should we be afraid of it? Absolutely."

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