Emergence of a Global Brain

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Article: The Emergence of a Global Brain. Francis Heylighen

URL = http://www.oss.net/dynamaster/file_archive/080219/bc4eebc7ebc20283f6a919dac4eb47a4/II%2d03%2d03%2dHeylighen%2dGlobal%2dBrain%20305%2d314%20%2818%20Feb%2008%29%20SP%20FINAL.doc


From Francis Heylighen:

Description of the Global Brain

"There is little doubt that the most important technological, economic and social development of the past decades is the emergence of a global, computer-based communication network. This network has been growing at an explosive rate, affecting—directly or indirectly—ever more aspects of the daily lives of the people on this planet. A general trend is that the information network becomes ever more global, more encompassing, more tightly linked to the individuals and groups that use it, and more intelligent in the way it supports them. The web doesn't just passively provide information, it now also actively alerts and guides people to the best options for them personally, while stimulating them to share their experience. To support this, the web increasingly builds on the knowledge and intelligence of all its users collectively, thanks to technologies such as blogs, wikis, ontologies, collaborative filtering, software agents, and online markets. It appears as though the net is turning into a nervous system for humanity.

The “Global Brain” is a metaphor for this emerging, collectively intelligent network that is formed by the people of this planet together with the computers, knowledge bases, and communication links that connect them together. This network is an immensely complex, self-organizing system. It not only processes information, but increasingly can be seen to play the role of a brain: making decisions, solving problems, learning new connections, and discovering new ideas. No individual, organization or computer is in control of this system: its knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. They emerge from the collective interactions between all the human and machine subsystems. Such a system may be able to tackle current and emerging global problems that have eluded more traditional approaches. Yet, at the same time it will create new technological and social challenges that are still difficult to imagine."

History of the Global Brain vision

"Although these developments seem very modern, the underlying visions of knowledge and society have deep roots, going back to Antiquity, and developed in particular during the 19th and 20th centuries. This concept of a cognitive system at the planetary level has been proposed by many different authors under different names: planetary brain, world brain, global mind, noosphere, social brain, Metaman [Stock, 1993], super-organism [Heylighen, 2007c], super-being [Turchin, 1977], and collective consciousness are some of the roughly equivalent synonyms. The evolutionary theologian Teilhard de Chardin [1969, first published 1947 but written earlier] was probably the first to focus on the mental organization of this social organism, which he called the “noosphere”. Around the same time, the science fiction writer H. G. Wells [1938] proposed the concept of a “world brain” as a unified system of knowledge, accessible to all. The term “global brain” seems to have been first used by Russell [1995]. The first people to have made the connection between this concept and the emerging Internet may well be Mayer-Kress [1995] and de Rosnay [2000]. Heylighen and Bollen [1996], and Goertzel [2001] appear to be the first researchers to have proposed concrete technologies that might turn the Internet into an intelligent, brain-like network.

The global brain vision draws part of its inspiration from a number of related approaches. Collective intelligence [Lévy, 1997; Heylighen, 1999] is the idea that a group can be more intelligent than its members. The best-known examples are social insects, such as ants, termites or bees, which are individually dumb, but capable of surprisingly intelligent behavior when functioning as a group. The intelligence of the global brain will be collective, as it arises from the interactions between millions of individuals. Symbiotic intelligence is the idea that intelligence can also emerge from the interactions between essentially different components, such as people and computers. As de Rosnay [2000] proposes, people will live in symbiosis with this surrounding network of technological systems, and out of this symbiosis, a higher-level intelligence will emerge.

Although most researchers have addressed the global brain idea from a scientific or technological point of view, authors like Teilhard de Chardin [1969] and Russell [1995] have explored some of its spiritual aspects. Similar to many mystical traditions, the global brain idea holds the promise of a much-enhanced level of consciousness and a state of deep synergy or union that encompasses humanity as a whole. Theists might view this state of holistic consciousness as a union with God. Humanists might see it as the creation, by humanity itself, of an entity with God-like powers. Followers of the Gaia hypothesis have suggested that the “living Earth” of which we are all part deserves awe and worship; it therefore could form the basis of a secular, ecologically inspired religion. The Global Brain vision may offer a similar sense of belonging to a larger whole and of an encompassing purpose."

Technologies for a Global Brain

"The web is the hypermedia interface to the information residing on the Internet. It makes it possible to seamlessly integrate documents that are distributed over the entire planet, and created by people who may not even be aware of each others' existence. What holds these documents together is not their geographic location, but their associations: links connecting mutually relevant pages. This hypermedia architecture is analogous to the one of our brain, where concepts are connected by associations, and the corresponding assemblies of neurons by synapses. The web thus functions like a huge associative memory for society.

However, the brain is more than a static memory: it can learn and think. Learning takes place by the strengthening of associations that are used often, and the weakening of rarely used associations. Through learning, the brain constantly enhances its organization and increases its store of knowledge. Thinking happens by the activation of concepts and the “spreading” of this activation to related concepts, in proportion to the strength of association. Thinking allows the brain to solve problems, to make decisions, and to be creative, that is, discover combinations of concepts never encountered before. By making simple changes to its static architecture, we can implement similar processes on the web.

In the brain, learning follows the rule of Hebb: if two neurons are activated in close succession, the strength of their connection is increased. I have proposed to apply a similar procedure to the web [Heylighen and Bollen, 1996, 2002]: if two web pages are consulted by the same user within a short interval, either the existing hyperlink between the pages gets a higher weight, or a new link is created. On any given page, only the links with a minimum weight are shown. Thus, links that are not sufficiently reinforced may eventually disappear. The result is that such a learning web constantly adapts to the way it is used, reorganizing its pattern of links to best reflect the preferences of its users. In practice, this creates direct links between the pages that are most strongly related, bypassing less interesting detours, and clustering pages together according to their mutual relevance. As such, the web becomes much more efficient to use, by assimilating the collective knowledge and desires of its users.

The simplest way to implement web “thinking” is to create a specialized software agent. This is a program that works as a “delegate” of its user, autonomously collecting information that is likely to be interesting to its user. The agent can learn the user's preferences simply by observing which pages the user actively uses, or it can receive specific instructions (e.g. keywords) from the user. Given that preference profile, the agent can locate pages that satisfy the profile, and then use “spreading activation” to find further, related documents. It does this by “activating” pages in proportion to their degree of interestingness, and then propagating that activation according to the hyperlinks and their weights as learned from other users. Thus, it can discover new documents, that may not contain any of the initially given keywords, but that are still highly relevant to the query. This is especially useful when the user cannot clearly formulate the query, but only has an intuitive feel for it.

With such technologies, the web would become a giant, collective brain, which you could consult at any moment to get an answer to your questions, however unusual or vaguely formulated they may be. Its thought processes would always be ready to enhance and extend your own thinking. To fully harness the power of this global brain, it should be constantly available. The rapid spread of mobile communication already offers universal access to the web, wherever you are. Further miniaturization will lead to wearable computers, incorporated in your clothing, with images projected on your glasses. Automatic recognition of speech, gestures and even emotions will make communication with the web much easier and more intuitive. In the longer term, we can foresee direct connections between computer and brain, through neural interfaces. This would allow you to communicate with the global brain simply by thinking, having your thoughts immediately sensed, understood, and enhanced. Your thoughts could also be directly turned into actions, as when you use the global brain to order a pizza, get a taxi, or switch on the heating, so that it would be nice and warm by the time you come home."