Chapter 4: The Internet as a Chaotic Attractor
"The universe may not only be stranger
than we suppose;
it may be stranger than we can suppose."
In mathematics and science,
a singularity is a point at which a function takes an infinite
value and thus loses meaning in normal terms. For example,
as you divide the number "one" by an infinitesimally
small decimal number the answer approaches infinity. The point
at which you attempt to divide the number "one"
by "zero" is the point of singularity. To greatly
understate the concept of a singularity, one could simply
say that strange things happen there.
In 1993, mathematics professor
and award-winning writer Vernor Vinge presented a paper titled
"Technological Singularity" at the VISION-21 Symposium
sponsored by NASA's Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace
Institute. In Vinge's view, a technological singularity will
soon occur because of the advent of computers possessing a
level of intelligence that exceeds the level of human intelligence.
With startling directness, Vinge began his paper by saying:
Within thirty years, we will have the technological means
to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human
era will be ended.
A few sentences later, he continued:
I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change
comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise
cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology
of entities with greater than human intelligence. (18)
It is interesting to note that
Vinge uses the phrase "creation by technology."
At first, I took this to mean humans were actually in charge
of these creative processes through the use of technology.
A closer reading causes me to consider the possibility that
technology itself may take a hand in the act of creating "entities
with greater than human intelligence." If this is the
case, Vinge is correct in asserting that the human era may
well be nearing its end. In many ways we are already seeing
signs that a new era, dominated by some form of human/machine
symbiosis, has begun to dawn.
Vinge went on to propose several
alternative ways in which such a technological singularity
could come about, which is another reason for having confidence
that the event will occur:
There may be developed computers that are awake and superhumanly
intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as
to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine.
But if the answer is "yes, we can," then there
is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed
Large computer networks (and their associated users) may
'wake up' as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users
may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
Biological science may provide the means to improve natural
Before you jump to the conclusion
that Vinge is a voice of techno-apocalyptic gloom, you would
be well served to read his paper. If you do, you will discover
that he closely follows the long-honored traditions of science,
which tell us what is possible out of a range of possibilities
but does not predict exactly what will happen. The range of
possibilities resulting from Vinge's concept of a technological
singularity, however, boggles the mind, for by definition
a singularity is a point at which conventional analysis breaks
down. If scientific knowledge and technological innovation
continue to increase at their present rates, approximately
doubling over constant periods of time, then, by Vinge's analysis,
it may soon be possible to create superhuman intelligence.
When/if that point is reached, we will experience the technological
singularity of which he writes. This is no small matter; like
entering a black hole, what lies beyond such a singularity
cannot be known ahead of time.
While the topic of a technological
singularity is not one that has inspired a significant number
of texts, it has generated more information on the Web than
is possible to read in any reasonable amount of time. Much
of this discussion, while extremely fascinating, concerns
life in a post-singularity world. Frankly, I don't see that
such speculation is a productive use of our time, for by definition
we cannot conceive of what takes place beyond the event horizon
of a singularity. This is the realm for our best science fiction
writers to explore. For the current discussion, we will focus
our attention on some of the possibilities Vinge sees that
may produce this technological singularity.
In his "Technological
Singularity" paper, Vinge speculates that computers might
be developed that are awake and are more intelligent than
humans. This statement, of course, opens up the Pandora's
"Artificial Intelligence," or AI, which has been
the subject of serious debate ever since computers became
widely available. Obviously, a full discussion of AI is beyond
the scope of this book. In fact, the field is so large, so
important, and so controversial that I considered not even
including a brief reference to it here. Yet the possibility
that we can build a computer that possesses superhuman intelligence
has become so realistic it simply cannot be ignored. Keep
in mind, we live in a probabilistic universe. Even if the
probability of superhuman machine intelligence is very low,
it remains a possibility that may actually be realized within
the lifetimes of most of the readers of this book.
Although the specter of super-intelligent
machines may not be something everyone wants to think about,
the fact remains that a lot of brilliant women and men are
hard at work trying to evolve just such machines. It seems
to me that all of humanity has a right to take part in discussions
about how these unimaginably powerful devices will be used.
This is not the time to sit on the sidelines and let only
our scientists and engineers consider the implications of
deep and rapid technological advances. These are times when
the entire chorus of human consciousness is called upon to
raise our voices in discussions about technology that will
have profound implications on the future of our species. There
are many newsgroups
and electronic mailing lists dealing with issues surrounding
machine intelligence. Perhaps it is time to add your voice
to these conversations.
My personal view is that if
advanced machine intelligence can be realized, we will see
this development well before the end of the 21st century.
If you are interested in looking deeper into this subject
I recommend you begin with Erik Davis' book, Techgnosis, and
with Ray Kurzweil's book, The Age of Spiritual Machines.
Another possible catalyst for
a technological singularity, as suggested by Vinge, is that
"large computer networks (and their associated users)
may 'wake up' as a superhumanly intelligent entity."
It is important to keep in mind here that Vinge's singularity
paper was written in 1993, before widespread use of the World
Wide Web began. The prospect of the Internet awakening appears
to me to coincide nicely with speculations about a technological
singularity. The big question, of course, is what is meant
when it is said that the network and its associated users
collectively wake up. In the final chapter of this book, I
will explore some possible ways in which the Internet/noosphere
combination may experience such a waking up singularity.
Computer / Human Symbiosis
One of the less controversial
paths to a technological singularity postulated by Vinge is
one where "computer/ human interfaces become so intimate
that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent."
We already can see advances in this area taking place. For
example, in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil
describes an experiment in which an electrode was inserted
into the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim allowing him to
control the cursor on a personal computer with his thoughts
alone. In a recent article, Kurzweil says, "In the 2020s,
these neural implants will not be just for people with disabilities,
but will be used to improve our perception, memory, and logical
thinking, and even create virtual sensory experiences."
It appears to me that this is precisely what Vinge means by
"intelligence amplification," another phrase he
uses to describe advanced human/computer symbiosis.
research, Kevin Warwick, has already tested an implant in
his arm that sent information about his physical location
to his building's computer. After having the chip implanted
in his arm, Warwick's laboratory building would greet him
when he arrived in the morning and unlock the door as he approached.
But this is only the tip of Warwick's research iceberg. His
current project calls for a more advanced device to be directly
coupled to his nervous system. Once his new device is in place,
he plans to conduct a wide range of experiments to determine
how well the human brain can process sensory input from non-human
interfaces. In an article for Wired magazine, he wrote:
. . . we can't normally process signals like ultraviolet,
X-rays, or ultrasound. Infrared detects visible heat given
off by a warm body, though our eyes can't see light in this
part of the spectrum. But what if we fed infrared signals
into the nervous system, bypassing the eyes? Would I be
able to learn how to perceive them? Would I feel or even
"see" the warmth? Or would my brain simply be
unable to cope? We don't have any idea-yet. (20)
Neural implants are no longer
the stuff of science fiction. They are a part of today's version
of reality. All around the world, researchers, software developers,
experimenters, benign hackers, (21)
and other scientists continue to blur the boundaries between
human and machine mind. As our interfaces to the Internet
become ever more biological in nature, we also see the Net
moving deeper into wireless transmission. It is certainly
within the range of probabilities that one day soon there
will be neural implants, which allow us to tap into the total
body of human knowledge stored on the Internet simply by executing
mental commands. Perhaps the day will arrive when we reach
a critical mass of such highly connected individuals, and
the resulting resonance of this group mind will precipitate
the technological singularity that Vernor Vinge foresees.
While widespread use of neural
implants may still be many years away, ubiquitous, or immersive
computing is now upon us. Already we are swimming in an ever-thickening
soup of electronic data as wireless transmissions begin to
saturate the radio frequency energy spectrum. You may think
that by electing to not own a cell phone, pager, or other
wireless communication device, you can avoid becoming caught
up in this growing web of instantaneous communications. The
rising tide of technology, however, will eventually float
your consciousness onto this vast sea of information without
your even realizing it.
My grandparents came into a
world without electricity and indoor plumbing. My parents
came into a world without television. My children came into
a world without personal computers. In the span of a single
century, those of us fortunate enough to live in a technologically
developed country have evolved our expectations of everyday
reality from that of life on a farm, with no electricity or
plumbing, to the point where it would seem strange indeed
if we could not view live broadcasts of newsworthy events
coming from any place in the world, or where we could not
pick up a telephone and speak with our friends, no matter
where they might be at the time. This dramatic change in world
view has come about in a single century. Just imagine what
a "normal" world view will mean to children born
at the beginning of this century, as they look back over their
life when the 22nd century is about to dawn.
Long before this century is
one-half over, even what is now called the third world will
be immersed in an unseen web of interconnected computing devices.
Sooner than most people think, many of the things we manufacture
will be tagged with invisible sensors. Containers will know
when their contents are getting low. Refrigerators will automatically
prepare grocery lists as items are removed. Over time, cyberspace
will hold a mirror image of our physical world, and the distinctions
between Virtual Reality and every day consensus reality will
begin to blur. Our living environments will be saturated with
technology. Many objects will recognize us as we come near
them. Things we now think of as inanimate will seem almost
alive as they respond to our movements and even to our moods.
"STOP!" some say.
"This is a nightmare scenario. We must not let this happen."
I suspect my great grandparents
would have said the same thing when their children were born,
had they been able to visualize our 21st century world. Yet
most of our children and grandchildren would probably not
want to live in a world without cell phones, pagers, and the
Internet. To stop the exponential growth of ubiquitous computing
is not only impossible, it would be unwise. What is called
for is for each and every one of us to become personally involved
in debates about the ethical considerations and human issues
that will shape the future of technological growth on this
planet in the century that lies before us.
As with everything else in
this universe, technology embodies both positive and negative
elements. If we want, we can simply throw up our hands and
say these issues are too big for us to deal with and let others
decide how these invasive devices will be deployed. Or we
can become involved. The dark side promises an Orwellian future,
with Big Brother knowing everything about us from movements
to thoughts. The alternative is for us to build into this
technology the basic human right of privacy-the right to be
left alone as long as we are not causing harm to others or
to the planet. The future is, quite literally, in our hands.
The Chaotic Attraction of the Internet
The sheer magnitude of new
theories, scientific discoveries, and futuristic experiments
that are taking place every day, coupled with our ever-growing
body of knowledge about ancient cultures, is enough to overwhelm
even the most well grounded mind. While this rush of events
is driving some of our neighbors back to the deceptive security
of fundamentalist religions, our most forward-looking and
fearless minds are being drawn ever more deeply into the chaotic
embrace of the Internet. In times like these, when the old
world view of Newtonian physics is being supplanted by one
of quantum reality, it becomes increasingly important that
we remain both open to and skeptical of radical new ideas.
This is certainly not the time to bury our heads in the sands
of old thinking. Instead we would be wise to firmly plant
our minds in the silicon of cyberspace and see what new ideas
begin to grow.
As much as some people
fear the incredible change that is about to sweep over our
societies, there simply is no longer any way to stop it. A
technological tsunami, the size of which has never before
been experienced on this planet, is about to engulf our entire
globe. Even many of the less technically developed countries
have begun to feel its approach. The wireless communications
revolution, with the ever expanding network of networks we
call the Internet playing a significant role, is already underway
in almost every nation on Earth. The technological revolution
this new century promises is about to change our world forever.
Whether such unprecedented
change will have a positive effect upon this planet remains
to be seen. In the chapter ahead titled "Your Future
in Cyberspace," I will point out some steps you can take
to make your voice heard in the ongoing discussions of issues
that will directly affect the social direction ubiquitous
computing and its nervous system, the Internet, will take
for the next decade or so. It is my hope that by the time
you finish reading this book you will share my optimism that
we are heading to higher ground. First, however, we will take
a look at a few of the potential detours that might be encountered
along the road to an Internet that is readily available to
anyone in the world who wants to use it, without having to
submit to government or corporate censorship. A delicate balance
between free speech and social responsibility must be maintained
if our utopian dreams of a free global exchange of ideas,
which are the genes of consciousness, is to become a reality.