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Edge Question 2010

Every year the literary agent John Brockman poses a question and gets people who have worked with him to supply answers. This year’s question was:
HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

All the answers can be found at the Edge site. I’ll reprint my answer below, along with some pictures I took in Vasona Park in Los Gatos today.

Search and Emergence

Twenty or thirty years ago, people dreamed of a global mind that knew everything and could answer any question. In those early times, we imagined that we’d need a huge breakthrough in artificial intelligence to make the global mind work—we thought of it as resembling an extremely smart person. The conventional Hollywood image for the global mind’s interface was a talking head on a wall-sized screen.

And now, in 2010, we have the global mind. Search-engines, user-curated encyclopedias, images of everything under the sun, clever apps to carry out simple computations—it’s all happening. But old-school artificial intelligence is barely involved at all.

As it happens, data, and not algorithms, is where it’s at. Put enough information into the planetary information cloud, crank up a search engine, and you’ve got an all-knowing global mind. The answers emerge.

Initially people resisted understanding this simple fact. Perhaps this was because the task of posting a planet’s worth of data seemed so intractable. There were hopes that some magically simple AI program might be able to extrapolate a full set of information from a few well-chosen basic facts—just a person can figure out another person on the basis of a brief conversation.

At this point, it looks like there aren’t going to be any incredibly concise aha-type AI programs for emulating how we think. The good news is that this doesn’t matter. Given enough data, a computer network can fake intelligence. And—radical notion—maybe that’s what our wetware brains are doing, too. Faking it with search and emergence. Searching a huge data base for patterns.

The seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing the world has been accomplished by ordinary people. This results from the happy miracle that the internet is that it’s unmoderated and cheap to use. Practically anyone can post information onto the web, whether as comments, photos, or full-blown web pages. We’re like worker ants in a global colony, dragging little chunks of data this way and that. We do it for free; it’s something we like to do.

Note that the internet wouldn’t work as a global mind if it were a completely flat and undistinguished sea of data. We need a way to locate the regions that are most desirable in terms of accuracy and elegance. An early, now-discarded, notion was that we would need some kind of information czar or committee to rank the data. But, here again, the anthill does the work for free.

By now it seems obvious that the only feasible way to rank the internet’s offerings is to track the online behaviors of individual users. By now it’s hard to remember how radical and rickety such a dependence upon emergence used to seem. No control! What a crazy idea. But it works. No centralized system could ever keep pace.

An even more surprising success is found in user-curated encyclopedias. When I first heard of this notion, I was sure it wouldn’t work. I assumed that trolls and zealots would infect all the posts. But the internet has a more powerful protection system than I’d realized. Individual users are the primary defenders.

We might compare the internet to a biological system in which new antibodies emerge to combat new pathogens. Malware is forever changing, but our defenses are forever evolving as well.

I am a novelist, and the task of creating a coherent and fresh novel always seems in some sense impossible. What I’ve learned over the course of my career is that I need to trust in emergence—also known as the muse. I assemble a notes document filled with speculations, overheard conversations, story ideas, and flashy phrases. Day after day, I comb through my material, integrating it into my mental net, forging links and ranks. And, fairly reliably, the scenes and chapters of my novel emerge. It’s how my creative process works.

In our highest mental tasks, any dream of an orderly process is a will-o’-the wisp. And there’s no need to feel remorseful about this. Search and emergence are good enough for the global mind—and they’re good enough for us.

9 Responses to “Edge Question 2010”

  1. theo Says:

    Dear Rudy,
    Regarding your photos – you have a great compositional eye. I’m not sure if it’s editorial as well but composition is great (editorial for me is non-static images). I think there is a wealth of saleable stuff that you have.

    The giant databases that the internet affords us is incredible. I don’t think of it as AI although I suppose one could attribute that characteristic if one were sufficiently un-informed. The biological analogy is good. Lots of self-interested submitters act as white blood cell or anti-pathogens to the BSers. It will be interesting to watch how the net evolves. I know there are lots of big players who want to control everything but I have faith that the crackers and hackers will keep everything off balance enough to allow an evolution driven by the smallest bits of the internet and not the power freaks. Short of turning off the pipes entirely I just don’t see the internet being throttled by corporate and government self-interest. Here’s hoping, anyway.

  2. Alex Says:

    In the last few years, when looking for information, I directly search in Wikipedia more than with Google. As more often than not, the wikipedia result will be at the top in Google.

    A very good book on the history of Google and web search is ‘The Search’ by John Battelle.

  3. emilio Says:

    @Alex, Google gives extra weight to sites like Wikipedia, Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia, etc. which is why they are at the top. i.e. they give extra weight to consistently useful sites because it keeps us coming back to also see the advertisements.

    I really like the construct of the web as an emergent intelligence. I’ve posited since like 1980 when I was a CS student that intelligence would emerge from the “network” (not then called the web). Of course I didn’t know nor could I imagine what the network would become thirty years ago. Thirty years later I find myself working on a little piece of web intelligence, intended to bring better inquiry via voice. Funny.

  4. paradoctor Says:

    The difference between Multivac and the Web is that Multivac was supposed to have a personality, or at least an identity, but the Web is impersonal. Multivac was supposed to be the world’s transcendent digital king, but the Web is an immanent republic of data. Multivac’s an It Above; the Web is Us Everywhere. Multivac is God-like, the Web is Tao-like.

    It amuses me that the Web fakes intelligence by large-data-base search. I agree, wetware does the same thing. We’re _all_ faking it!

    It also intrigues me that the Web’s synthetic intelligence – literally, an artifice – inheres in the global system of computers, and not in any particular single program or machine. Can the same be said of human intelligence?

    What happens if the global mind takes over? Well, if it’s _our_ global mind, then we _want_ it to take over!

  5. HAL-1701 Says:

    the kids are allright. i think that’s the correct way to write that. not “alright” or “all right”, and they’re certainly not “all Right”.

    taking apart the television set to find the capacitor or glowing tube that is thinking up those Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea episodes (the ones that know what you’re wearing and the names of your friends and yet seem to have been made in another era and maybe in another world), is not where it’s at.

    the ineffable fertile void is surrounded (and poked-into, ever-further, ever and always) by towers of babel and other perhaps-not-so-flimsy structures, but really nobody needs any of the telepathy-stifling encrustationality we’re being harnessed with.

    silence is where it’s at. the four words ‘forwards’ religion: “What, Do, You, Want ?”

    things are As They Should Be. of course, you may be a part of the “Hey Let’s Debug The Worst Problem We Can Think Of” team… but that’s okay!

    it’s funny that engineering the gathering and containment of the volume of heated air or helium needed to lift a “life”-boat off of the forever-endevour plane between sky and ocean is just beyond the reach of most nonmillionaires. but the birds (or the fish, as submarines are equally just-out-of-reach) laugh at the poor human in his sailboat of life, forever torn between two lovers. so we aim for the far shore (there’s a lighthouse there, with a warm pot of stew dating back hundreds of years, they don’t scour the pan) with “grim determination”. and watch dvds (in the back seat only, there’s no autopilot for the driver), to “pass the time”; and pretend to ignore the copyrighted-ephemeral-“annoying”-unrecordable-left-out-of-the-archive “commercials” which are actually the best part of it all. and meanwhile those birds and dolphins and squid and stars and manganese nodules “on the bottom” play dumb.

  6. HAL-1701 Says:

    uh, do you know about Jaron Lanier’s new book “You are not a gadget” ?

    quote:

    from
    http://www.jaronlanier.com/poleconGadgetqa.html


    "
    Q: In YOU ARE NOT A GADGET, you argue that the idea that the collective is smarter than the individual is wrong. Why is this?

    Jaron: There are some cases where a group of people can do a better job of solving certain kinds of problems than individuals. One example is setting a price in a marketplace. Another example is an election process to choose a politician. All such examples involve what can be called optimization, where the concerns of many individuals are reconciled.

    There are other cases that involve creativity and imagination. A crowd process generally fails in these cases. The phrase “Design by Committee” is treated as derogatory for good reason. That is why a collective of programmers can copy UNIX but cannot invent the iPhone.

    In the book, I go into considerably more detail about the differences between the two types of problem solving. Creativity requires periodic, temporary “encapsulation” as opposed to the kind of constant global openness suggested by the slogan “Information wants to be free.” Biological cells have walls, academics employ temporary secrecy before they publish, and real authors with real voices might want to polish a text before releasing it. In all these cases, encapsulation is what allows for the possibility of testing and feedback that enables a quest for excellence. To be constantly diffused in a global mush is to embrace mundanity.
    "

  7. HAL-1701 Says:

    “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”

    ( by Richard Brautigan, 1967, San Francisco )

    I like to think (and
    the sooner the better!)
    of a cybernetic meadow
    where mammals and computers
    live together in mutually
    programming harmony
    like pure water
    touching clear sky.

    I like to think
    (right now please!)
    of a cybernetic forest
    filled with pines and electronics
    where deer stroll peacefully
    past computers
    as if they were flowers
    with spinning blossoms.

    I like to think
    (it has to be!)
    of a cybernetic ecology
    where we are free of our labors
    and joined back to nature,
    returned to our mammal
    brothers and sisters,
    and all watched over
    by machines of loving grace.

    (( a nice original 1967 print of this with collage: ))
    (( http://www.brautigan.net/graphics/machines/machines-computer.jpg ))

  8. Alex Says:

    So good search results are an optimized consensus of the global mind.

  9. HAL-1701 Says:

    a blog about “will uploaded minds be alive ?” and “the ethics of military robots”:

    http://moralmachines.blogspot.com/


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