Kevin Kelly recently wrote another fascinating article about evidence of a global superorganism. It’s another useful contribution to the ongoing evolution of this meme.
I tend to agree that we are at what Kevin calls, Stage III. However, an important distinction in my own thinking is that the superorganism is not comprised just of machines, but it is also comprised of people.
(Note: I propose that we abbreviate the One Machine, as “the OM.” It’s easier to write and it sounds cool.)
Today, humans still make up the majority of processors in the OM. Each human nervous system comprises billions of processors, and there are billions of humans. That’s a lot of processors.
However, Ray Kurzweil posits that the balance of processors is rapidly moving towards favoring machines — and that sometime in the latter half of this century, machine processors will outnumber or at least out compute all the human processors combined, perhaps many times over.
While agree with Ray’s point that machine intelligence will soon outnumber human intelligence, I’m skeptical of Kurzweil’s timeline, especially in light of recent research that shows evidence of quantum level computation within microtubules inside neurons. If in fact the brain computes at the tubulin level then it may have many orders of magnitude more processors than currently estimated. This remains to be determined. Those who argue against this claim that the brain can be modelled on a Classical level and that quantum computing need not be invoked. To be clear, I am not claiming that the brain is a quantum computer, I am claiming that there seems to be evidence that computation in the brain takes place at the quantum level, or near it. Whether quantum effects have any measurable effect on what the brain does is not the question, the question is simply whether microtubules are the lowest level processing elements of the brain. If they are,then there are a whole lot more processors in the brain than previously thought.
Another point worth considering is that much of the brain’s computation is not taking place within the neurons but rather in the gaps between synapses, and this computation happens chemically rather than electrically. There are vastly more synapses than neurons, and computation within the synapses happens at a much faster and more granular level than neuronal firings. It is definitely the case thatchemical-level computations take place with elements that are many orders of magnitude smaller than neurons. This is another case for the brain computing at a much lower level than is currently thought.
In other words the resolution of computation in the human brain is still unknown. We have several competing approximations but no final answer on this. I do think however that evidence points to computation being much more granular than we currently think.
In any case, I do agree with Kurzweil that at least it is definitely the case that artificial computers will outnumber naturally occurring human computers on this planet — it’s just a question of when. In my view it will take a little longer than he thinks: it is likely to happen after 100 to 200 years at the most.
There is another aspect of my thinking on this subject which I think may throw a wrench in the works. I don’t think that what we call “consciousness” is something that can be synthesized. Humans appear to be conscious, but we have no idea what that means yet. It is undeniable that we all have an experience of being conscious, and this experience is mysterious. It is also the case that at least so far, nobody has built a software program or hardware device that seems to be having this experience. We don’t even know how to test for consciousness in fact. For example, the much touted Turing Test does not test consciousness, it tests humanlike intelligence. There really isn’t a test for consciousness yet. Devising one is an interesting an important goal that we should perhaps be working on.
In my own view, consciousness is probably fundamental to the substrate of the universe, like space, time and energy. We don’t know what space, time and energy actually are. We cannot actually measure them directly either. All our measurements of space, time and energy are indirect — we measure other things that imply that space, time and energy exist. Space, time and energy are inferred by effects we observe on material things that we can measure. I think the same may be true of consciousness. So the question is, what are the measureable effects of consciousness? Well one candidate seems to be the Double Slit experiment, which shows that the act of observation causes the quantum wave function to collapse. Are there other effects we can cite as evidence of consciousness?
I have recently been wondering how connected consciousness is to the substrate of the universe we are in. If consciousness is a property of the substrate, then it may be impossible to synthesize. For example, we never synthesize space, time or energy — no matter what we do, we are simply using the space, time and energy of the substrate that is this universe.
If this is the case, then creating consciousness is impossible. The best we can do is somehow channel the consciousness that is already there in the substrate of the universe. In fact, that may be what the human nervous system does: it channels consciousness, much in the way that an electrical circuit channels electricity. The reason that software programs will probably not become conscious is that they aretoo many levels removed from the substrate. There is little or no feedback between the high-level representations of cognition in AI programs and the quantum-level computation (and possibly consciousness) of the physical substrate of the universe. That is not the case in the human nervous system — in the human nervous system the basic computing elements and all the cognitive activity are directly tied to the physical substrate of the universe. There is at least the potential for two-way feedback to take place between the human mind (the software), the human brain (a sort of virtual machine), and the quantum field (the actual hardware).
So the question I have been asking myself lately is how connected is consciousness to the physical substrate? And furthermore, how important is consciousness to what we consider intelligence to be? If consciousness is important to intelligence, then artificial intelligence may not be achievable through software alone — it may require consciousness, which may in turn require a different kind of computing system, one which is more connected (through bidirectional feedback) to the physical quantum substrate of the universe.
What all this means to me is that human beings may form an important and potentially irreplaceable part of the OM — the One Machine — the emerging global superorganism. In particular today the humans are still the most intelligent parts. But in the future when machine intelligence may exceed human intelligence a billionfold, humans may still be the only or at least most conscious parts of the system. Because of the uniquely human capacity for consciousness (actually, animals and insects are conscious too), I think we have an important role to play in the emerging superorganism. We are it’s awareness. We are who watches, feels, and knows what it is thinking and doing ultimately.
Because humans are the actual witnesses and knowers of what the OM does and thinks, the function of the OM will very likely be to serve and amplify humans, rather than to replace them. It will be a system that is comprised of humans and machines working together, for human benefit, not for machine benefit. This is a very different future outlook than that of people who predict a kind of “Terminator-esque” future in which machines get smart enough to exterminate the human race. It won’t happen that way. Machines will very likely not get that smart for a long time, if ever, because they are not going to be conscious. I think we should be much more afraid of humans exterminating humanity than of machines doing it.
So to get to Kevin Kelly’s Level IV, what he calls “An Intelligent Conscious Superorganism” we simply have to include humans in the system. Machines alone are not, and will not ever be, enough to get us there. I don’t believe consciousness can be synthesized or that it will suddenly appear in a suitably complex computer program. I think it is a property of the substrate, and computer programs are just too many levels removed from the substrate. Now, it is possible that we might devise a new kind of computer architecture — one which is much more connected to the quantum field. Perhaps in such a system, consciousness, like electricity, could be embodied. That’s a possibility. It is likely that such a system would be more biological in nature, but that’s just a guess. It’s an interesting direction for research.
In any case, if we are willing to include humans in the global superorganism — the OM, the One Machine — then we are already at Kevin Kelly’s Level IV. If we are not willing to include them, then I don’t think will reach Level IV anytime soon, or perhaps ever.
It is also important to note that consciousness has many levels, just like intelligence. There is basic raw consciousness which simply perceives the qualia of what takes place. But there are also forms of consciousness which are more powerful — for example, consciousness that is aware of itself, and consciousness which is so highly tuned that it has much higher resolution, and consciousness which is aware of the physical substrate and its qualities of being spacelike and empty of any kind of fundamental existence. These are in fact the qualities of the quantum substrate we live in. Interestingly, they are also the qualities of reality that Buddhists masters also point out to be the ultimate nature of reality and of the mind (they do not consider reality and mind to be two different things ultimately). Consciousness may or may not be aware of these qualities of consciousness and of reality itself — consciousness can be dull, or low-grade, or simply not awake. The level to which consciousness is aware of the substrate is a way to measure the grade of consciousness taking place. We might call this dimension of consciousness, “resolution.” The higher the resolution of consciousness is, the more acutely aware it is of the actual nature of phenomena, the substrate. At the highest resolution it can directly perceive the space-like, mind-like, quantum nature of what it observes. At the highest level of resolution, there is no perception of duality between observer and observed — consciousness perceives everything to be essentially consciousness appearing in different forms and behaving in a quantum fashion.
Another dimension of consciousness that is important to consider is what we could call “unity.” On the lowest level of the unity scale, there is no sense of unity, but rather a sense of extreme isolation or individuality. At the highest level of the scale there is a sense of total unification of everything within one field of consciousness. That highest-level corresponds to what we could call “omniscience.” The Buddhist concept of spiritual enlightenment is essentially consciousness that has evolved to BOTH the highest level of resolution and the highest level of unity.
The global superorganism is already conscious, in my opinion, but it has not achieved very high resolution or unity. This is because most humans, and most human groups and organizations, have only been able to achieve the most basic levels of consciousness themselves. Since humans, and groups of humans, comprise the consciousness of the global superorganism, our individual and collective conscious evolution is directly related to the conscious evolution of the superorganism as a whole. This is why it is important for individuals and groups to work on their own consciousnesses. Consciousness is “there” as a basic property of the physical substrate, but like mass or energy, it can be channelled and accumulated and shaped. Currently the consciousness that is present in us as individuals, and in groups of us, is at best, nascent and underdeveloped.
In our young, dualistic, materialistic, and externally-obsessed civilization, we have made very little progress on working with consciousness. Instead we have focused most or all of our energy on working with certain other more material-seeming aspects of the substrate — space, time and energy. In my opinion a civilization becomes fully mature when it spends equal if not more time on the consciousness dimension of the substrate. That is something we are just beginning to work on, thanks to the strangeness of quantum mechanics breaking our classical physical paradigms and forcing us to admit that consciousness might play a role in our reality.
But there are ways to speed up the evolution of individual and collective consciousness, and in doing so we can advance our civilization as a whole. I have lately been writing and speaking about this in more detail.
On an individual level one way to rapidly develop our own consciousness is the path of meditation and spirituality — this is most important and effective. There may also be technological improvements, such as augmented reality, or sensory augmentation, that can improve how we perceive, and what we perceive. In the not too distant future we will probably have the opportunity to dramatically improve the range and resolution of our sense organs using computers or biological means. We may even develop new senses that we cannot imagine yet. In addition, using the Internet for example, we will be able to be aware of more things at once than ever before. But ultimately, the scope of our individual consciousness has to develop on an internal level in order to truly reach higher levels of resolution and unity.Machine augmentation can help perhaps, but it is not a substitute for actually increasing the capacity of our consciousnesses. For example, if we use machines to get access to vastly more data, but our consciousnesses remain at a relatively low-capacity level, we may not be able to integrate or make use of all that new data anyway.
It is a well known fact that the brain filters out most of the information we actually perceive. Furthermore when taking a a hallucinogenic drug, the filter opens up a little wider, and people become aware of things which were there all along but which they previously filtered out. Widening the scope of consciousness — increasing the resolution and unity of consciousness, is akin to what happens when taking such a drug, except that it is not a temporary effect and it is more controllable and functional on a day-to-day basis. Many great Tibetan lamas I know seem to have accomplished this — the scope of their consciousness is quite vast, and the resolution is quite precise. They literally can and do see every detail of even the smallest things, and at the same time they have very little or no sense of individuality. The lack of individuality seems to remove certain barriers which in turn enable them to perceive things that happen beyond the scope of what would normally be considered their own minds — for example they may be able to perceive the thoughts of others, or see what is happening in other places or times. This seems to take place because they have increased the resolution and unity of their consciousnesses.
On a collective level, there are also things we can do to make groups, organizations and communities more conscious. In particular, we can build systems that do for groups what the “self construct” does for individuals.
The self is an illusion. And that’s good news. If it wasn’t an illusion we could never see through it and so for one thing spiritual enlightenment would not be possible to achieve. Furthermore, if it wasn’t an illusion we could never hope to synthesize it for machines, or for large collectives. The fact that “self” is an illusion is something that Buddhist, neuroscientists, and cognitive scientists all seem to agree on. The self is an illusion, a mere mental construct. But it’s a very useful one, when applied in the right way. Without some concept of self we humans would find it difficult to communicate or even navigate down the street. Similarly, without some concept of self groups, organizations and communities also cannot function very productively.
The self construct provides an entity with a model of itself, and its environment. This model includes what is taking place “inside” and what is taking place “outside” what is considered to be self or “me.” By creating this artificial boundary, and modelling what is taking place on both sides of the boundary, the self construct is able to measure and plan behavior, and to enable a system to adjust and adapt to “itself” and the external environment. Entities that have a self construct are able to behave far more intelligently than those which do not. For example, consider the difference between the intelligence of a dog and that of a human. Much of this is really a difference in the sophistication of the self-constructs of these two different species. Human selves are far more self-aware, introspective, and sophisticated than that of dogs. They are equally conscious, but humans have more developed self-constructs. This applies to simple AI programs as well, and to collective intelligences such as workgroups, enterprises, and online communities. The more sophisticated the self-construct, the smarter the system can be.
The key to appropriate and effective application of the self-construct is to develop a healthy self, rather than to eliminate the self entirely. Eradication of the self is form of nihilism that leads to an inability to function in the world. That is not something that Buddhist or neuroscientists advocate. So what is a healthy self? In an individual, a healthy self is a construct that accurately represents past, present and projected future internal and external state, and that is highly self-aware, rational but not overly so, adaptable, respectful of external systems and other beings, and open to learning and changing to fit new situations. The same is true for a healthy collective self. However, most individuals today do not have healthy selves — they have highly deluded, unhealthy self-constructs. This in turn is reflected in the higher-order self-constructs of the groups, organizations and communities we build.
One of the most important things we can work on now is creating systems that provide collectives — groups, organizations and communities — with sophisticated, healthy, virtual selves. These virtual selves provide collectives with a mirror of themselves. Having a mirror enables the members of those systems to see the whole, and how they fit in. Once they can see this they can then begin to adjust their own behavior to fit what the whole is trying to do. This simple mirroring function can catalyze dramatic new levels of self-organization and synchrony in what would otherwise be a totally chaotic “crowd” of individual entities.
In fact, I think that collectives move through three levels of development:
- Level 1: Crowds. Crowds are collectives in which the individuals are not aware of the whole and in which there is no unified sense of identity or purpose. Nevertheless crowds do intelligent things. Consider for example, schools of fish, or flocks of birds. There is no single leader, yet the individuals, by adapting to what their nearby neighbors are doing, behave collectively as a single entity of sorts. Crowds are amoebic entities that ooze around in a blob like fashion. They are not that different from physical models of gasses.
- Level 2: Groups. Groups are the next step up from crowds. Groups have some form of structure, which usually includes a system for command and control. They are more organized. Groups are capable of much more directed and intelligent behaviors. Families, cities, workgroups, sports teams, armies, universities, corporations, and nations are examples of groups. Most groups have intelligences that are roughly similar to that of simple animals. They may have a primitive sense of identity and self, and on the basis of that, they are capable of planning and acting in a more coordinated fashion.
- Level 3: Meta-Individuals. The highest level of collective intelligence is the meta-individual. This emerges when what was once a crowd of separate individuals, evolves to become a new individual in its own right, and is facilitated by the formation of a sophisticated meta-level self-construct for the collective. This evolutionary leap is called a metasystem transition — the parts join together to form a new higher-order whole that is made of the parts themselves. This new whole resembles the parts, but transcends their abilities. To evolve a collective to the level of being a true individual, it has to have a well-designed nervous system, it has to have a collective brain and mind, and most importantly it has to achieve a high-level of collective consciousness. High level collective consciousness requires a sophisticated collective self construct to serve as a catalyst. Fortunately, this is something we can actually build, because as has been asserted previously, self is an illusion, a construct, and therefore selves can be built, even for large collectives comprised of millions or billions of members.
The global superorganism has been called The Global Brain for over a century by a stream of forward looking thinkers. Today we may start calling it the One Machine, or the OM, or something else. But in any event, I think the most important work that we can can do to make it smarter is to provide it with a more developed and accurate sense of collective self. To do this we might start by working on ways to provide smaller collectives with better selves — for example, groups, teams, enterprises and online communities. Can we provide them with dashboards and systems which catalyze greater collective awareness and self-organization? I really believe this is possible, and I am certain there are technological advances that can support this goal. That is what I’m working on with my own project, Twine.com. But this is just the beginning.