Monday, September 08, 2008

The self-conscious Web

“When will the Internet become aware of itself?” was a question posed by Terrence Sejnowski in in the 2006 edition of the Edge- The World Question Centre, moving the speculation from the realm of science fiction and philosophy to the fields of neuroscience and biology. He argued that the bandwidth and the memory power of the Internet were growing exponentially, and its architecture and communication ability would closely resemble that of the human brain by the year 2015. So, functionally, there was no reason why the Internet could not make the leap to acquire consciousness and become self-aware.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Alun Anderson, argued that while the Internet could have a ‘brain’, it could not have a ‘mind”. Brains cannot become minds without bodies because two-way interactions between brain and body are crucial to create and keep alive the ‘mind’. An example is the effect of ‘placebos’ that tend to release pain-relieving endorphins and, in turn, affect neuronal firing rates in people with Parkinson’s disease.

Another example of the body-mind interaction is the effect of two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin that are released as a result of the tactile pleasures of mating. These hit pleasure centres in the brain and addict partners to each other. So, no body, no mind. In other words, Internet cannot have a mind, without tactile sensations, or until the computers start mating with each other.

In his absorbing story, “The Bicentennial man”, Asimov explored the theme, “when does a robot become human?”. Andrew, the robot, had many of the human characteristics, a far higher brain capacity, but he desperately wants to be acknowledged as ‘human’. He acquires the sapient features of human beings, and even a few real organs, and yet fails in his mission. He finally realises that what distinguishes the human from the robot was ‘mortality” and chooses to die.

Let’s hope that the Internet doesn’t get such ideas.

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