Director, Ranking Digital Rights Project, New America Foundation; Author, Consent of the Networked ; Co-founder, Global Voices
Electric Brains

The Chinese word for "computer" translates literally as "electric brain."

How do electric brains "think" today? As individual machines, still primitively by human standards. Powerfully enough in the collective. Networked devices and all sorts of things with electric brains embedded in them increasingly communicate with one another, share information, reach mutual "understandings" and make decisions. It is already possible for a sequence of data retrieval, analysis, and decision-making, distributed across a "cloud" of machines in various locations to trigger action by a single machine or set of machines in one specific physical place, thereby affecting (or in service of) a given human or group of humans.

Perhaps individual machines may never "think" in a way that resembles individual human consciousness as we understand it. But maybe some day large globally distributed networks of non-human things may achieve some sort of pseudo-Jungian "collective consciousness." More likely, the collective consciousness of human networks and societies will be enhanced by—and increasingly intertwined with—a different sort of collective consciousness generated by networks of electric brains.

Will this be a good thing or a bad thing?

Both. Neither. Like the Internet we all use today it depends whether you think human nature is fundamentally good or bad or both. The Internet does not transform or improve human nature. It magnifies, telescopes, enhances, empowers, amplifies and concentrates many aspects of human nature –from the altruistic and charitable to the criminal and evil. Get ready to add another dimension to what the Internet already does.

We already have what computer scientists like to call "attribution problems:" identifying who is truly responsible for something that happens on or through the Internet (say, for example, a cyber-attack on a government facility or multinational corporation). Those problems and debates are going to get even tougher very quickly.

We will continue to ask many of the same questions about human rights implications of a much smarter and empowered cloud that we are asking today about the Internet and networked devices. Who gets to shape the technology we increasingly depend on for our economic, social, political, and religious lives? Who is responsible when somebody's rights are violated via these technologies, platforms and networks? Who gets to hold whom accountable for violations including censorship, surveillance, incitement to physical violence, data-driven discrimination, etc.?

New questions: Will rival networks of thinking things created by and connected closely to (note I don't say "controlled by") rival cultures, commercial alliances, religions or polities block connections from or between one another? Might they fight each other? How will artistic creation work? How will politics work? How will war work? Can censorship and surveillance be delegated to non-human networks so that humans can avoid taking responsibility for such things? (How convenient for our government and business leaders.) Can thinking networks of things instead be engineered in a way that requires direct human involvement or sign-off for certain types of actions taken by machines?

Will empowered smart clouds exacerbate global inequalities? Might they exacerbate global ideological and religious conflicts if we don't actively work to prevent such an outcome? If we want to prevent the global digital divide from gaining a new and deeper dimension, what preventative steps must be taken early on?

Will these networks be open or closed? Will any innovator from anywhere be able to plug something new into a network and expect it to be able to communicate—or shall we say participate—without needing permission? Or will it be a controlled system with certain companies or governments deciding who and what is allowed to connect at what price. Or will some systems be open while some are closed.

Will smarter and more empowered global networks of things further erode the power and legitimacy of nation states beyond what the Internet has already done? Or might they actually extend the power of nation states in new ways? Or enable the nation state to evolve and ultimately survive in a digitally networked world?

We cannot assume good or humane outcomes just because the people who invent the technology or set the process in motion seem like fundamentally well intentioned, freedom-and-democracy loving people. Such assumptions did not work well for the Internet and they won't work any better for whatever comes next.