More than the Sum of its Parts

As we enter 2014 on the Gregorian calendar, I feel we should take a moment to reflect on the monumental achievement that is this network of networks. Our lives and our world are now irreversibly changed, they are now enveloped by the Internet. As we continue to journey into it, the Internet is achieving a level of raucous activity that has a beautiful parallel in nature, one that reveals the true genius of our creation.

Right now this network of networks is still in the process of developing, new connections are being made and existing ones being strengthened. It is being empowered with new and ever more intricate ways to query its depths and measure its activity. This network is made of silicon and light, forged from and filled with human ingenuity and desire. Far from artificial, it is beautifully natural. Its progression is following the path of the great network, the one that started our journey of discovery: the human brain. The human brain is composed of relatively simple pieces, neurons, that connect and aggregate to be much more than the mere sum of their connections. Individually, a neuron is just a cell, but together in one system they are conscious. While our brains are made of cells that are akin to mere switches, this new brain is composed of entire brains, both human and computer. This new brain’s activity is made of our data, knowledge, thoughts, imaginations, and feelings. This new brain remembers everything that it ever was. This new brain is exponentially smart. Just as each of us grow and learn from experience, so too is the Internet growing and learning.

In building this mesh of connections between humans and computers, we are creating an intelligence beyond any possible single machine; we’re turning the Earth into our collective brain, channeling our power, and that of our inventions, into a single conduit. Far from some hive mind dystopia, we’re just replicating and expanding what we each already are: billions of individual units aggregating to a whole, which manifests as greater than the sum of its parts. Individuality isn’t lost, instead it thrives, as it unleashes the incredible power of immense complexity. Humans and software working together to be more than they ever could be alone. Where ideas once took many rotations around the Sun to spread, now they ripple through the global mind as quickly as they are formed. Ever-changing and uncontrollable, an endless foaming roar of activity. Creating memories, thoughts, even dreams.

The Internet is coming alive, its mesmerizing din rising toward the ubiquitous, rapid, beautiful, and barely orchestrated cacophony that characterizes the complexity of a mind. This new brain has already proven to be immensely powerful, and even a small bit foreign, reflecting our input but with its own sometimes baffling interpretation. All of us connected together has emerged as so much more than the sum, and there are still many billions of new connections to make. This journey has only just begun. 

- JH


Further reading on consciousness from Cristof Koch in Scientific American.