Read more in our article on how the Internet works.
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MIT's Daniel Graham and Daniel Rockmore have recently suggested that it's profitable to consider whether the brain specifically the cortex communicates in similar ways. At the very least, they argue, that shifts the focus away from the computational emphasis of cognitive psychology what happens inside the flowchart boxes of the mind to greater consideration of how different parts of the brain actually communicate how the boxes link together.
More radically, they suggest there might be something to be gained by exploring whether the brain shuffles information in a similar way to how the Net switches packets between discrete domains. Wisely, though, they end their comparison with a caution: "As grand descriptions, analogies to technology all ultimately fail to account for major aspects of brains. No single mechanistic description has achieved more than a rudimentary description of perceptual or cognitive systems. The brain and the Net are essentially linear. You can't send an email from London, England to someone in Tokyo without it traveling through various intermediate domains though it's important to remember that Net traffic doesn't flow as the crow flies, much less how the boat sails or even how the telephone call is routed.
In the same way, if you see something, information has to pass in a certain sequence from the retinas in your eyes to the visual cortex in your brain in the occipital lobe of whichever eye is seeing at the time. The same is not true of the Web. Any Web page can link to any other without passing through any intermediate page or pages, though there is usually some meaningful connection: links are generally not random.
This spontaneous connectivity is one of the things that's made Twitter so popular and successful. With a single click of your mouse, you can immediately "follow" your favorite celebrity—Stephen Fry, Ashton Kutcher, or whoever—and be one of thousands tweeting them at any given moment.
From World-Wide Web to Global Brain | Telepolis
And nothing much changes in the world. But if your tweet catches their attention and they tweet you in return, follow you, or ask their followers to follow you, you can find yourself suddenly followed by hundreds or thousands of people who never previously knew of your existence.
Through one or two simple "links" the tweet you sent and the one you received in return , the Web has slightly but significantly rewired itself. A direct new link has been made from one side of cyberspace Stephen Fry to the other you without passing through anything or anyone in between. The spontaneous creation of links between previously unrelated parts of the Web is one of the most creative and exciting possibilities of cyberspace—and one that remains largely unexplored.
It's easy to get carried away with fanciful comparisons between brain, Web, and Net—unless you remember that they're designed to do completely different jobs. Although we might have high-flying notions about philosophy and poetry, the blunt truth is that our brains are designed to run our bodies, nothing more and nothing less. That's why behaviorism proved to be relatively successful: we can understand a certain amount of human behavior as mere "animal behavior," at its crudest, almost knee-jerk reflexes from sensory stimuli to motor muscular responses.
The Internet and the Web obviously have no body to control: the Internet's purpose is to carry information from one computer to another, while the Web is a highly dynamic repository of human knowledge. Push behaviorism aside, and start to ask how exactly the brain controls the body, and it's immediately clear that brains have internal functions that resemble those of both the Net and the Web: they carry information like the Net and they're active repositories of knowledge like the Web.
Now it's easy to see obvious parallels between, say, human memory and computer memory ; but, instead, let's explore the comparison further by considering something less obvious, perception and pattern recognition, which is one of the human brain's most important functions. Processing sensory information—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching something—is largely about recognizing patterns, which is why it's fair to say that much of what we see happens in the brain rather than the eye. From recognizing faces to reading written language, visual perception is substantially a problem of pattern recognition.
From the mid s or so, psychologists and computer scientists joined forces to develop neural networks , which are computer models of pattern recognition based on layers of connected "units" roughly analogous to brain cells. You can train a neural network to recognize things by presenting it with many different examples. So if you show it a hundred pictures of dogs and a hundred pictures of cats, and explain which is which, it should be able to tell you whether a picture of an unknown animal is either a cat or a dog. Neural networks are built from layers of discrete units connected together by links of different "weight" and they learn links by a feedback process typically one called back-propagation that adjusts the weights of the links each time new information passes through them.
Photo: A neural network recognizes patterns using interconnected layers of input units red , hidden units blue , and output units yellow. The weights of the connections between the units represent, in distributed form, the things the network learns. Can the Net or the Web recognize patterns in similar ways to the brain, using something like a neural network?
It's hard to see any comparison with the Net.
The domains between which packets of information are switched are not linked by connections whose weight changes. The Net doesn't change the way it carries information according to the meaning of the information it carries. Indeed, the whole reason the Net has been such a successful design is that it takes no account whatsoever of the type of information it carries. That means a network that was originally conceived to carry simple messages between computers such as emails has also been able to carry Web pages, VoIP telephone calls, TV pictures, and much more besides.
Technically, this is known as the end-to-end principle , which means that the inner structure of the network hasn't been designed according to what the network itself is carrying, and it's related to the similar concept of Net neutrality , where all Internet traffic is treated the same way. But what about the Web? Does that function as a neural network? Does it recognize patterns? It's certainly true that the Web consists of discrete points websites connected to other discrete points other domains by weighted links.
Although, in principle, every link on the Web is the same as every other link, some links clearly carry more weight than others: as we've already seen, that's why Google gives much more credit to a link to your website from NASA, the BBC, or the White House than from Acme Dishwashers or Billy's Elvis Presley Fan Site. So the Web has some of the structure of a neural network, but can it function the same way? There's a key difference between a neural network and the Web that we've not yet considered. While all the "units" in the Web websites are, in principle, equivalent, the units in a neural network fall into three different types: input units through which new information is fed in , output units where results appear , and hidden units in between the input and output units where the actual processing is done.
In the diagram up above, information flows through the network as it does in a computer, from input through processing hidden units to output as drawn, from left to right. The Web corresponds to the hidden units in the middle of a neural network: it has no obvious input or output. Not only that, but it's not arranged to process information in a linear fashion, like a neural network. It's more like a sphere built entirely from hidden units, where any hidden unit can, in theory, connect with any other and not just the units either side, as in a simple neural network.
But can we stretch the analogy just a little more? We might consider whether certain units of the Web can act as inputs and outputs. Blogs, for example, often pick up exciting topical developments from the real world, which are then discussed and disseminated by other blogs and other websites before, occasionally, prompting dramatic real-world events of their own. Back in , for example, in what is often cited as the first big demonstration of blog power, US politician Trent Lott famously resigned as Senate Republican Leader after bloggers seized on a careless remark he made that they considered racist, but which the mainstream media had chosen to ignore.
After much heated online debate, the now-amplified story was eventually picked up again by mainstream journalists and so much attention was focused on Lott that he decided to stand down. Attentive websites had served as the inputs, the interlinked network of blogs, websites, and social networkers discussed and disseminated those inputs, hyping them up or playing them down, and finally, the network as a whole somehow arrived at an aggregated conclusion an output that prompted very real action?
The interesting thing about this analogy and it is only an analogy is that any website or Facebook or Twitter account might act as an "active" input or output or a more "passive" hidden unit, merely playing a small part in the collective pattern-recognition and decision-making process. So if the Web is, in any sense, a neural network, it's a very special kind of neural network where the input, hidden, and output units are in a constant state of flux. Brains are complex and wobble about, dangerously exposed, on the tops of our heads. If they're lucky enough not to suffer physical damage through something like a head injury, they have to survive mental illness which affects a third of us at some point of our lives , and gradual deterioration as we get older.
It's intriguing to consider whether the Net and the Web could suffer analogous problems. People suffer from psychiatric disorders for a whole variety of different reasons, from "life events" a failed marriage could plunge you into depression to imbalances in brain chemicals now widely supposed to cause crippling disorders such as schizophrenia. It seems to stretch the analogy too far to consider the Net or the Web developing similar problems.
As we've already considered, there's more mileage in thinking about whether the Net or the Web can be degraded by localized damage—and how they might react and respond. We'd only expect the Web say to show a brain-like response to "lesions" if it were arranged in a modular fashion. To a certain extent, that's true: websites, for example, are specialized and dedicated to particular topics.
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If the most authoritative website about dogs say a site that most dog owners relied on for all their information disappeared overnight, we might expect the Web to experience something akin to highly selective amnesia. But it would still have perfect knowledge about cats and other animals, some knowledge of dogs would survive dispersed across other websites, and, sooner or later, someone else would reconstruct the original dog knowledge on a different website, maybe even better than the original.
Libraries are sober zones where even talking may be forbidden; emotions are cooled, calmed, dispersed, and dissipated. Individual books might be ranting polemics, but a library as a whole has no overriding opinion on any subject. Encyclopedias such as Wikipedia embody a similar spirit with a policy known as neutral point of view NPOV : articles have to show balance without obviously favoring one argument or another.
The Internet is a neutral place too: thanks to network neutrality , the traffic that travels from A to B speeds or chugs from domain to domain irrespective of whether it's the President's State of the Union address or a vile example of racist hate speech; in a democracy with a right to free speech, that's exactly what we might expect. The Web, on the other hand, is quite different. Happy, angry, elated, or sad, websites can certainly convey an emotional tone , but it's static—and not quite the same thing as the ever-changing emotions that flood through our own brains.
Blog posts can obviously be emotional too, and here the tone can fluctuate from day to day or even minute to minute. Still, although the emotions are variable, the emotions expressed in any one post are essentially frozen in time: whether it's a happy post or an angry post, that's what it will always be. Is there any kind of analog for the fluctuating, responsive emotions in the human mind?
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The aggregated emotions of what's called the blogosphere and the Twittersphere come closer. Does this collective chit-chat amount to anything that could be described as an emotional response? Maybe we should ask that question on Twitter? We could argue at length over a definition of intelligence , but let's assume it's one of the things that most distinguishes humans from "less-sophisticated" animals and flying in the face of the Turing test machines like computers and robots.
The human brain is intelligent, by definition; we deem it so just by having invented the concept of intelligence.
The Global Brain Awakens: Our Next Evolutionary Leap
But is there any sense in which the Internet or the Web could be considered intelligent? The question has no obvious meaning where the Net which is merely concerned with communication is concerned. What about things like the blogosphere and the Twittersphere? Do they have an intelligence beyond the intelligence of their individual users?
The very existence of those terms suggests there's a meta level on which the Web now operates; that, in turn, raises the possibility of meta-phenomena such as intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness which may or may not be the same thing. Is the Web self-aware? Does a blog post about the blogosphere or Twittersphere "going wild" amount to the early stirrings of self-awareness and consciousness? Isn't that taking the analogy too far? I think it probably is. One of the key aspects of consciousness is surely the sense of being the "internal conductor" of your own mental and physical orchestra however specious that may be  : you are actively conscious of being or doing something yourself , but you can't be conscious on behalf of someone else.
Thus, I can feel conscious that I am "staring out of my eyes" and typing these words now, just as you can feel conscious that you're staring out of your eyes and reading them. But I can't be conscious on your behalf that you're reading the words; and, in the same way, I can't be conscious, as a blogger, on behalf of something called the blogosphere; even if I'm an active part of it, I might just as well be a passive commentator. Blogging that "the blogosphere went wild" is entirely different from saying "I scored that goal," not least because the first statement has to be shared, externally with other people, while the second can remain valid purely as an internal thought.
A conscious Web would be something entirely different. Consciousness would be quintessentially meta: something above, beyond, and entirely apart from the Web itself, something that we, as mere constituents, would presumably have no more way to experience than an individual brain cell could experience human consciousness.
Photo: Self-awareness: Is there anybody out there? It's easy to comprehend things smaller than you are, but harder to grasp that you're part of something bigger—like a galaxy of stars or even the entire universe. Would we, could we, be aware of the Internet's or Web's self-awareness, if it ever did occur?
Is the possibility of a conscious Web good, bad, or ugly? Similar trends can be observed in human society on this planet. But the last decades population growth is slowing down and will reach about 10 billion! But it is also moving into the next phase — the linking of the billions of human minds into 1 single network. At present there are about 10 billion cell phones sold and about 5 billion people connected to the internet with fixed links or wireless. This looks like a planetary nervous system for a Global Brain that is starting to function, including with memory for knowledge, search engines for pattern recognition and other brainfunctions.
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