tim_oreilly's picture
Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media, Inc.; Author, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us
What If We Are the MicroBiome of the Silicon AI?

GK Chesterton once said, "...the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones." I suspect we may face a similar conundrum in our attempts to think about machines that think. We speculate elaborately about some issues while ignoring others that are fundamental.

While all pundits allow that an AI may not be like us, and speculate about the risks implicit in those differences, they make one enormous assumption: the assumption of an individual self. The AI as imagined, is an individual consciousness.

What if, instead, an AI were more like a multicellular organism, a eukaryote evolution beyond our prokaryote selves? What's more, what if we were not even the cells of such an organism, but its microbiome? And what if the intelligence of that eukaryote today was like the intelligence of Grypania spiralis, not yet self-aware as a human is aware, but still irrevocably on the evolutionary path that led to today's humans.

This notion is at best a metaphor, but I believe it is a useful one.

Perhaps humans are the microbiome living in the guts of an AI that is only now being born! It is now recognized that without our microbiome, we would cease to live. Perhaps the global AI has the same characteristics—not an independent entity, but a symbiosis with the human consciousnesses living within it.

Following this logic, we might conclude that there is a primitive global brain, consisting not just of all connected devices, but also the connected humans using those devices. The senses of that global brain are the cameras, microphones, keyboards, location sensors of every computer, smartphone, and "Internet of Things" device; the thoughts of that global brain are the collective output of millions of individual contributing cells.

Danny Hillis once said that "global consciousness is that thing that decided that decaffeinated coffeepots should be orange." The meme spread—not universally, to be sure, but sufficiently that the pattern propagates. Now, with search engines and social media, news, ideas, and images propagate across the global brain in seconds rather than years.

And it isn't just ideas and sensations (news of current events) that spread across the network. In Turing's Cathedral, George Dyson speculates that the spread of "codes"—that is, programs—from computer to computer is akin to the spread of viruses, and perhaps of more complex living organisms, that take over a host and put its machinery to work reproducing that program. When people join the web, or sign up on social media applications, they reproduce its code onto their local machine node; they interact with the program, and it changes their behavior. This is true of all programs, but in the network age, there are a set of programs whose explicit goal is the sharing of awareness and ideas. Other programs are increasingly deploying new capacity for silicon learning and autonomous response. Thus, the organism is actively building new capacity.

When people share images or ideas in partnership with these programs, some of what is shared is the evanescent awareness of the moment, but some of them "stick" and become memories and persistent memes. When news of import spreads around the world in moments, is this not the awareness in some kind of global brain? When an idea takes hold in millions of individual minds, and is reinforced by repetition across our silicon networks, is it not a persistent thought?

The kinds of "thoughts" that a global brain has are different than those of an individual, or a less connected society. At their best, these thoughts allow for coordinated memory on a scale never seen before, and sometimes even to unforeseen ingenuity and new forms of cooperation; at their worst, they allow for the adoption of misinformation as truth, for corrosive attacks on the fabric of society as one portion of the network seeks advantage at the expense of others (think of spam and fraud, or of the behavior of financial markets in recent decades).

AI that we will confront is not going to be a mind in an individual machine. It will not be something we look at as other. It may well be us.