According to Ben Goertzel, chair of the Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute, “The internet behaves a fair bit like a mind (and) it might already have a degree of consciousness”.

Could the net become self-aware?

Consciousness and artificial intelligence have long been an area of fascination for Francis Heylighen, who studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) in Belgium. Heylighen speculates how the internet may be capable, in some way or another, of becoming “a self-aware network that constantly strives to become better at what it does, re-organizing itself and filling gaps in its own knowledge and abilities.” This, essentially, suggests a pattern of organization similar to our understanding of what consciousness is.

Especially in film, extensions of people’s fears of machines becoming self-aware has been showcased in such futuristic thrillers as the Terminator series. In these films, a computer system called Skynet activates legions of robotic militants hell-bent on exterminating the human race. Similarly, mechanical jellyfish captors are the fiends who have enslaved mankind in pink bubbles of slime in the popular Matrix trilogy. And let us not forget Arthur C. Clark’s visionary work; going back a little further we see HAL from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, getting his feelings hurt after exhibiting his lip-reading prowess, only to try and kill protagonist Dave and the other astronauts in a manned Jupiter mission.

In spite of their superhuman abilities, one thing that these apocalyptic robotic villains did seem to lack was precognition; and yet it seems hardly surprising that scientists and economists alike are already tapping the Internet’s apparent abilities to “see the future” in an effort to predict trends in the global economy.

Google has demonstrated before that search data can predict flu outbreaks like the present swine flu on everyone’s mind, and as recently as last month World Bank economist Erik Feyen said he could cut errors in a model that forecasts lending to the private sector by 15% using Google search data alone (for the complete story, click here. The way it works has to do with cutting-edge utilization of keywords, frequently used search terms and their results, “memes”, and other popular items of interest to the millions of individuals scouring the web each day. This trend toward toward “crowdsourcing” the interests, hopes, fears, concerns, fetishes, and desires of humankind has even prompted the Google company’s interest in purchasing the popular social-networking application Twitter.

Another company who practices this new art of prediction is Web Bot, who have already put forth their own list of “predictions” for the remainder of 2009, which includes what they refer to as a “Global Coast Event likely in early to mid 2009,” which they say could result in “permanent loss of low lying territory globally,” warning that one continent in particular may receive the brunt of this event.

Could it indeed be the case that sourcing web “intelligence” in ways like this could lead to consciousness on a broader, more human-like level? What would it take for the web to become self-aware, and if possible, how soon might we expect it?

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Author: Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, and podcaster. His interests include areas of history, science, archaeology, philosophy, and the study of anomalous phenomena in nature. He can be reached at

One Reply to “A Self-Made Mind: The Internet and Consciousness”

  1. Robert J. Sawyer’s science fiction book WWW:Wake is about consciousness developing in the web:

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    Caitlin Decter is young, pretty, feisty, a genius at math

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