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The human brain and the internet share a key feature in their layout; a web-like structure of individual nodes acting in unison to transmit information between physical locations. In brains we have neurons, comprised in turn of myelinated axons and dendrites. The internet is comprised of similar entities, with connections such as fibre optics and ethernet cabling acting as the mode of transport for information. Computers and routers act as gateways (boosting/re-routing) and originators of such information.

How can we describe the physical structure and complexity of these two networks? Does this offer any insight into their similarities and differences? What is the plausibility of a conscious Internet? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

At a very basic level, both networks are organic in nature (surprisingly, in the case of the Internet); that is, they are not the product of an ubiquitous ‘designer’ and are given the freedom to evolve as their environment sees fit. The Internet is given permission to grow without a directed plan. New nodes and capacity added haphazardly. The naturally evolved topology of the Internet is one that is distributed; the destruction of nodes has little effect on the overall operational effectiveness of the network. Each node has multiple connections, resulting in an intrinsic redundancy where traffic is automatically re-routed to the target destination via alternate paths.

We can observe a similar behaviour in the human brain. Neurological plasticity serves a function akin to the distributed nature of the Internet. Following injury to regions of the brain, adjacent areas can compensate for lost abilities by restructuring neuronal patterns. For example, injuries to the frontal cortex motor area can be minimised with adjacent regions ‘re-learning’ otherwise mundane tasks that have since been lost as a result of the injury. While such recoveries are entirely possibly with extensive rehabilitation, two key factors determine the likelihood and efficiency of the operation; the intensity of the injury (percentage of brain tissue destroyed, location of injury) and leading from this, the chronological length of recovery. These factors introduce the first discrepancy between these two networks.

Unlike the brain, the Internet is resilient to attacks on its infrastructure. Local downtime is a minor inconvenience as traffic moves around such bottlenecks by taking the next fastest path available. Destruction of multiple nodes has little effect on the overall web of information. Users may loose access to or experience slowness in certain areas, but compared to the remainder of possible locations (not to mention redundancies in content – simply obtain the information elsewhere) such lapses are just momentary inconveniences. But are we suffering from a lack of perspective when considering the similarities of the brain and the virtual world? Perhaps the problem is one related to a sense of scale. The destruction of nodes (computers) could instead be interpreted in the brain as the removal of individual neurons. If one takes this proposition then the differences begin to loose their lucidity.

An irrefutable difference, however, arises when one considers both the complexity and the purpose of the two networks. The brain contains some 100 billion neurons, whilst the Internet comprises a measly 1 billion users by comparison (with users roughly equating the number of nodes, or access terminals that are physically connected to the Internet). Brains are the direct product of evolution, created specifically to keep the organism alive in an unwelcoming and hostile living environment. The Internet, on the other hand, is designed to accommodate a never-ending torrent of expanding human knowledge.  Thus the dichotomy in purpose between these two networks is quite distinguished, with the brain focusing on reactionary and automated responses to stimuli while the Internet aims to store information and process requests for its extraction to the end user.

Again we can take a step back and consider the similarities of these two networks. Looking at topology, it is apparent that the distributed nature of the Internet is similar to the structure and redundancy of the human brain. In addition, the Internet is described as a ‘scale-free’ or power-law network, indicating that a small percentage of highly connected nodes accounts for a very large percentage of the overall traffic flow. In effect, a targeted attack on these nodes would be successful in totally destroying the network. The brain, by comparison, appears to be organised into distinct and compartmentalised regions. Target just a few or even one of these collections of cells and the whole network collapses.

It would be interesting to empirically investigate the hypothesis that the brain is also a scale-free network that is graphically represented via a power law. Targetting the thalamus for destruction, (which is a central hub through which sensory information is redirected) might have the same devastating effect on the brain as destroying the ICANN headquarters in the USA (responsible for domain name assignment).

As aforementioned, the purposes of these two networks are different, yet share the common bond of processing and transferring information. At such a superficial level we see that the brain and the Internet are merely storage and retrieval devices, upon which the user (or directed thought process) are sent on a journey through a virtual world towards their intended target (notwithstanding the inevitable sidetracks along the way!). Delving deeper, the differences in purpose act as a deterrent when one considers the plausibility of consciousness and self-awareness.

Which brings us to the cusp of the article. Could the Internet, given sufficient complexity, become a conscious entity in the same vein as the human brain? Almost immediately the hypothesis is dashed due to its rebellion against common sense. Surely it is impossible to propose that a communications network based upon binary machines and internet protocols could ever achieve a higher plane of existence. But the answer might not be as clear cut as one would like to believe. controversially, both networks could be controlled by indeterminate processes. The brain, at its very essence, is governed by quantum unpredictability. Likewise, activity on the Internet is directed by self-aware, indeterminate beings (which in turn, are the result of quantum processes). At what point does the flow of information over a sufficiently complex network result in an emergent complexity mots notably characterised by a self-aware intelligence? Just as neurons react to the incoming electrical pulses of information, so too do the computers of the internet pass along packets of data. Binary code is equated with action potentials; either information is transmitted or not.

Perhaps the most likely (and worrying) outcome in a futurist world would be the integration of an artificial self-aware intelligence with the Internet. Think Skynet from the Terminator franchise. In all possibility such an agent would have the tools at its disposal to highjack the Internet’s comprising nodes and reprogram them in such a fashion as to facilitate the growth of an even greater intelligence. The analogy here is if the linking of human minds were possible, the resulting intelligence would be great indeed – imagine a distributed network of humanity, each individual brain linked to thousands of others in a grand web of shared knowledge and experience.

Fortunately such a doomsday outlook is most likely constrained within the realms of science fiction. Reality tends to have a reassuring banality about it that prevents the products of human creativity from becoming something more solid and tangible. Whatever the case may be in regards to the future of artificial intelligence, the Internet will continue to grow in complexity and penetration. As end user technology improves, we take a continual step closer towards an emergent virtual consciousness, whether it be composed of ‘uploaded’ human minds or something more artificial in nature. Let’s just hope that a superior intelligence can find a use for humanity in such a future society.