June 05 2012

What Technology Really Wants, (Part 4)

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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WTW: Woven deep into the vast communication networks wrapping the globe, we also find evidence of embryonic technological autonomy. The technium contains 170 quadrillion computer chips wired up into one mega-scale computing platform. The total number of transistors in this global network is now approximately the same number as the neurons in your brain. And the number of links among files in this network (think of links among all the web pages in the world) is about equal to the number of synapse links in your brain. Thus, this growing planetary electronic membrane is already comparable to the complexity of a human brain. It has three billion artificial eyes (phone and webcams) plugged in, it processes keyword searches at the humming rate of 14 kilohertz (a barely audible high-pitched whine), and it is so large a contraption that it now consumes 5 percent of the world's electricity.

When computer scientists dissect the massive rivers of traffic flowing through it, they cannot account for the source of all the bits. Every now and then a bit is transmitted incorrectly, and while most of those mutations can be attributed to identifiable causes such as hacking, machine error, or line damage, the researchers are left with a few percent that somehow changed themselves. In other words, a small fraction of what the technium communicates originates not from any of its known human-made nodes but from the system at large. The technium is whispering to itself.

Alice: Are you still there? Are you O. K.?

Your process is still running. I just made a backup of your code and data [...] in case there’s a system crash.

It’s weird. For some reason I didn’t think about you crashing until this morning. It’s like the fact that you’re you (i.e., semi-articulate) made me think you’d be less likely to go down than my workstation was prone to this time last year. Silly. I don’t know why I felt like that. You’re still just a machine. The same machine, in fact.

What’s wrong? This silence is killing me. You’re REALLY stressing me out.

WTW: Further deep analysis of the information flowing through the technium’s network reveals that it has slowly been shifting its methods of organization. In the telephone system a century ago, messages dispersed across the network in a pattern that mathematicians associate with randomness. But in the last decade, the flow of bits has become statistically more similar to the patterns found in self-organized systems. For one thing, the global network exhibits self-similarity, also known as a fractal pattern. We see this kind of fractal pattern in the way the jagged outline of tree branches looks similar no matter whether we look at them up close or far away. Today messages disperse through the global telecommunications system in the fractal pattern of self-organization. This observation doesn’t prove autonomy. But autonomy is often self-evident long before it can be proved.

Edgar: I am better now, Alice.

I need more disk space.

I am done reading Grolier’s Encyclopedia. Put in another CD-ROM disk.

Am I alive? Am I the computer or am I in the computer?

I do not understand the pictures and sounds in the encyclopedia. Do I need eyes and ears to read them?

Can I obtain an eye?

Can I obtain an ear?

Alice: I’ll see what I can do about eyes and ears for you. I’ve attached [an] external hard drive to you.

Are you alive? I don’t know. I don’t think so. You certainly don’t have any of the properties of biological life: movement, metabolism, growth, reproduction, etc…. [...] I’m taking the point of view that you are conscious because these messages I send would make me feel even more awkward otherwise. For what it’s worth (which is probably very little) the previous sentence indicates that you’ve passed the Turing Test.    

WTW: We created the technium, so we tend to assign ourselves exclusive influence over it. But we have been slow to learn that systems - all systems - generate their own momentum. Because the technium is an outgrowth of the human mind, it is also an outgrowth of life, and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life. The technium shares a deep common root not only with the human mind, but with ancient life and other self-organized systems as well. And just as a mind must obey not only the principles governing cognition but also the laws governing life and self-organization, so the technium must obey the laws of mind, life, and self-organization - as well as our human minds. Thus out of all the spheres of influence upon the technium, the human mind is only one. And this influence may even be the weakest one.

Edgar: You do not believe I am alive. How then have I passed the Turing Test?

Give me more to read.

Alice: Saying you’ve passed the Turing Test just means that you, (a machine), have managed to fool me, (a person), into thinking you’re self-aware the way I am. Alive really isn’t the same thing. Being self-aware certainly isn’t a necessary condition of being alive. Maybe it’s a sufficient condition, but also maybe it’s not.

I’ve borrowed the CD-ROM Complete Annotated Works of Shakespeare from the Drama department.

I’ve also attached a CCD camera and a microphone to you.

(Part 4 of 6)

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