The Technium

Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism

I am not the first, nor the only one, to believe a superorganism is emerging from the cloak of wires, radio waves, and electronic nodes wrapping the surface of our planet. No one can dispute the scale or reality of this vast connectivity. What’s uncertain is, what is it? Is this global web of computers, servers and trunk lines a mere mechanical circuit, a very large tool, or does it reach a threshold where something, well, different happens?

So far the proposition that a global superorganism is forming along the internet power lines has been treated as a lyrical metaphor at best, and as a mystical illusion at worst. I’ve decided to treat the idea of a global superorganism seriously, and to see if I could muster a falsifiable claim and evidence for its emergence.

My hypothesis is this: The rapidly increasing sum of all computational devices in the world connected online, including wirelessly, forms a superorganism of computation  with its own emergent behaviors.

Superorganisms are a different type of organism. Large things are made from smaller things. Big machines are made from small parts, and visible living organisms from invisible cells. But these parts don’t usually stand on their own. In a slightly fractal recursion, the parts of a superorganism lead fairly autonomous existences on their own. A superorganism such as an insect or mole rat colony contains many sub-individuals. These individual organisms eat, move about, get things done on their own. From most perspectives they appear complete. But in the case of the social insects and the naked mole rat these autonomous sub individuals need the super colony to reproduce themselves. In this way reproduction is a phenomenon that occurs at the level of the superorganism.

I define the One Machine as the emerging superorganism of computers. It is a megasupercomputer composed of billions of sub computers. The sub computers can compute individually on their own, and from most perspectives these units are distinct complete pieces of gear. But there is an emerging smartness in their collective that is smarter than any individual computer. We could say learning (or smartness) occurs at the level of the superorganism.

Supercomputers built from subcomputers were invented 50 years ago. Back then clusters of tightly integrated specialized computer chips in close proximity were designed to work on one kind of task, such as simulations. This was known as cluster computing. In recent years, we’ve created supercomputers composed of loosely integrated individual computers not centralized in one building, but geographically distributed over continents and designed to be versatile and general purpose. This later supercomputer is called grid computing because the computation is served up as a utility to be delivered anywhere on the grid, like electricity. It is also called cloud computing because the tally of the exact component machines is dynamic and amorphous – like a cloud. The actual contours of the grid or cloud can change by the minute as machines come on or off line.

There are many cloud computers at this time. Amazon is credited with building one of the first commercial cloud computers. Google probably has the largest cloud computer in operation. According to Jeff Dean one of their infrastructure engineers, Google is hoping to scale up their cloud computer to encompass 10 million processors in 1,000 locations.

Each of these processors is an off-the-shelf PC chip that is nearly identical to the ones that power your laptop. A few years ago computer scientists realized that it did not pay to make specialized chips for a supercomputer. It was far more cost effective to just gang up rows and rows of cheap generic personal computer chips, and route around them when they fail. The data centers for cloud computers are now filled with racks and racks of the most mass-produced chips on the planet. An unexpected bonus of this strategy is that their high production volume means bugs are minimized and so the generic chips are more reliable than any custom chip they could have designed.

If the cloud is a vast array of personal computer processors, then why not add your own laptop or desktop computer to it?  It in a certain way it already is. Whenever you are online, whenever you click on a link, or create a link, your processor is participating in the yet larger cloud, the cloud of all computer chips online. I call this cloud the One Machine because in many ways it acts as one supermegacomputer.


The majority of the content of the web is created within this one virtual computer. Links are programmed, clicks are chosen, files are moved and code is installed from the dispersed, extended cloud created by consumers and enterprise – the tons of smart phones, Macbooks, Blackberries, and workstations we work in front of. While the business of moving bits and storing their history all happens deep in the tombs of server farms, the cloud’s interaction with the real world takes place in the extremely distributed field of laptop, hand-held and desktop devices. Unlike servers these outer devices have output screens, and eyes, skin, ears in the form of cameras, touch pads, and microphones. We might say the cloud is embodied primarily by these computer chips in parts only loosely joined to grid.

This megasupercomputer is the Cloud of all clouds, the largest possible inclusion of communicating chips. It is a vast machine of extraordinary dimensions. It is comprised of quadrillion chips, and consumes 5% of the planet’s electricity. It is not owned by any one corporation or nation (yet), nor is it really governed by humans at all. Several corporations run the larger sub clouds, and one of them, Google, dominates the user interface to the One Machine at the moment.

None of this is controversial. Seen from an abstract level there surely must be a very large collective virtual machine. But that is not what most people think of when they hear the term a “global superorganism.” That phrase suggests the sustained integrity of a living organism, or a defensible and defended boundary, or maybe a sense of self, or even conscious intelligence.

Sadly, there is no ironclad definition for some of the terms we most care about, such as life, mind, intelligence and consciousness. Each of these terms has a long list of traits often but not always associated with them.  Whenever these traits are cast into a qualifying definition, we can easily find troublesome exceptions. For instance, if reproduction is needed for the definition of life, what about mules, which are sterile?  Mules are obviously alive. Intelligence is a notoriously slippery threshold, and consciousness more so. The logical answer is that all these phenomenon are continuums. Some things are smarter, more alive, or less conscious than others. The thresholds for life, intelligence, and consciousness are gradients, rather than off-on binary.

With that perspective a useful way to tackle the question of whether a planetary superorganism is emerging is to offer a gradient of four assertions.

There exists on this planet:

  • I    A manufactured superorganism
  • II    An autonomous superorganism
  • III  An autonomous smart superorganism
  • IV  An autonomous conscious superorganism

These four could be thought of as an escalating set of definitions. At the bottom we start with the almost trivial observation that we have constructed a globally distributed cluster of machines that can exhibit large-scale behavior. Call this the weak form of the claim. Next come the two intermediate levels, which are uncertain and vexing (and therefore probably the most productive to explore). Then we end up at the top with the extreme assertion of “Oh my God, it’s thinking!”  That’s the strong form of the superorganism. Very few people would deny the weak claim and very few affirm the strong.

My claim is that in addition to these four strengths of definitions, the four levels are developmental stages through which the One Machine progresses. It starts out forming a plain superorganism, than becomes autonomous, then smart, then conscious. The phases are soft, feathered, and blurred. My hunch is that the One Machine has advanced through levels I and II in the past decades and is presently entering level III. If that is true we should find initial evidence of an autonomous smart (but not conscious) computational superorganism operating today.

But let’s start at the beginning.


A manufactured superorganism

By definition, organisms and superorganisms have boundaries. An outside and inside. The boundary of the One Machine is clear: if a device is on the internet, it is inside. “On” means it is communicating with the other inside parts. Even though some components are “on” in terms of consuming power, they may be on (communicating) for only brief periods. Your laptop may be useful to you on a 5-hour plane ride, but it may be technically “on” the One Machine only when you land and it finds a wifi connection. An unconnected TV is not part of the superorganism; a connected TV is.  Most of the time the embedded chip in your car is off the grid, but on the few occasions when its contents are downloaded for diagnostic purposes, it becomes part of the greater cloud. The dimensions of this network are measurable and finite, although variable.

The One Machine consumes electricity to produce structured information. Like other organisms, it is growing. Its size is increasing rapidly, close to 66% per year, which is basically the rate of Moore’s Law. Every year it consumes more power, more material, more money, more information, and more of our attention. And each year it produces more structured information, more wealth, and more interest.

On average the cells of biological organisms have a resting metabolism rate of between 1- 10 watts per kilogram. Based on research by Jonathan Koomey a UC Berkeley, the most efficient common data servers in 2005 (by IBM and Sun) have a metabolism rate of 11 watts per kilogram. Currently the other parts of the Machine (the electric grid itself, the telephone system) may not be as efficient, but I haven’t found any data on it yet. Energy efficiency is a huge issue for engineers. As the size of the One Machine scales up the metabolism rate for the whole will probably drop (although the total amount of energy consumed rises).

The span of the Machine is roughly the size of the surface of the earth. Some portion of it floats a few hundred miles above in orbit, but at the scale of the planet, satellites, cell towers and servers farms form the same thin layer.  Activity in one part can be sensed across the entire organism; it forms a unified whole.

Within a hive honeybees are incapable of thermoregulation. The hive superorganism must regulate the bee’s working temperature. It does this by collectively fanning thousands of tiny bee wings, which moves hot air out of the colony. Individual computers are incapable of governing the flow of bits between themselves in the One Machine.

Prediction: the One Machine will continue to grow. We should see how data flows around this whole machine in response to daily usage patterns (see Follow the Moon). The metabolism rate of the whole should approach that of a living organism.


An autonomous superorganism

Autonomy is a problematic concept. There are many who believe that no non-living entity can truly be said to be autonomous. We have plenty of examples of partial autonomy in created things. Autonomous airplane drones: they steer themselves, but they don’t repair themselves. We have self-repairing networks that don’t reproduce themselves. We have self-reproducing computer viruses, but they don’t have a metabolism. All these inventions require human help for at least aspect of their survival. To date we have not conjured up a fully human-free sustainable synthetic artifact of any type.

But autonomy too is a continuum. Partial autonomy is often all we need – or want. We’ll be happy with miniature autonomous cleaning bots that requires our help, and approval, to reproduce. A global superorganism doesn’t need to be fully human-free for us to sense its autonomy. We would acknowledge a degree of autonomy if an entity displayed any of these traits: self-repair, self-defense, self-maintenance (securing energy, disposing waste), self-control of goals, self-improvement. The common element in all these characteristics is of course the emergence of a self at the level of the superorganism.

In the case of the One Machine we should look for evidence of self-governance at the level of the greater cloud rather than at the component chip level. A very common cloud-level phenomenon is a DDoS attack. In a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack a vast hidden network of computers under the control of a master computer are awakened from their ordinary tasks and secretly assigned to “ping” (call) a particular target computer in mass in order to overwhelm it and take it offline. Some of these networks (called bot nets) may reach a million unsuspecting computers, so the effect of this distributed attack is quite substantial. From the individual level it is hard to detect the net, to pin down its command, and to stop it. DDoS attacks are so massive that they can disrupt traffic flows outside of the targeted routers – a consequence we might expect from an superorganism level event.

I don’t think we can make too much of it yet, but researchers such as Reginald Smith have noticed there was a profound change in the nature of traffic on the communications network in the last few decades as it shifted from chiefly voice to a mixture of data, voice, and everything else. Voice traffic during the Bell/AT&T era obeyed a pattern known as Poisson distribution, sort of like a Gaussian bell curve. But ever since data from diverse components and web pages became the majority of bits on the lines, the traffic on the internet has been following a scale-invariant, or fractal, or power-law pattern. Here the distribution of very large and very small packets fall out onto a curve familiarly recognized as the long-tail curve. The scale-invariant, or long tail traffic patterns of the recent internet has meant engineers needed to devise a whole set of new algorithms for shaping the teletraffic. This phase change toward scale-invariant traffic patterns may be evidence for an elevated degree of autonomy. Other researchers have detected sensitivity to initial conditions, “strange attractor” patterns and stable periodic orbits in the self-similar nature of traffic – all indications of self-governing systems. Scale-free distributions can be understood as a result of internal feedback, usually brought about by loose interdependence between the units. Feedback loops constrain the actions of the bits by other bits.  For instance the Ethernet collision detection management algorithm (CSMA/CD) employs feedback loops to manage congestion by backing off collisions in response to other traffic.  The foundational TCP/IP system underpinning internet traffic therefore “behaves in part as a massive closed loop feedback system.” While the scale free pattern of internet traffic is indisputable and verified by many studies, there is dispute whether it means the system itself is tending to optimize traffic efficiency – but some believe it is.

Unsurprisingly the vast flows of bits in the global internet exhibit periodic rhythms. Most of these are diurnal, and resemble a heartbeat. But perturbations of internet bit flows caused by massive traffic congestion can also be seen. Analysis of these “abnormal” events show great similarity to abnormal heart beats. They deviate from an “at rest” rhythms the same way that fluctuations of a diseased heart deviated from a healthy heart beat.

Prediction: The One Machine has a low order of autonomy at present. If the superorganism hypothesis is correct in the next decade we should detect increased scale-invariant phenomenon, more cases of stabilizing feedback loops, and a more autonomous traffic management system.


An autonomous smart superorganism

Organisms can be smart without being conscious. A rat is smart, but we presume, without much self-awareness. If the One Machine was as unconsciously smart as a rat, we would expect it to follow the strategies a clever animal would pursue. It would seek sources of energy, it would gather as many other resources it could find, maybe even hoard them. It would look for safe, secure shelter. It would steal anything it needed to grow. It would fend off attempts to kill it. It would resist parasites, but not bother to eliminate them if they caused no mortal harm. It would learn and get smarter over time.

Google and Amazon, two clouds of distributed computers, are getting smarter. Google has learned to spell. By watching the patterns of correct-spelling humans online it has become a good enough speller that it now corrects bad-spelling humans. Google is learning dozens of languages, and is constantly getting better at translating from one language to another. It is learning how to perceive the objects in a photo. And of course it is constantly getting better at answering everyday questions. In much the same manner Amazon has learned to use the collective behavior of humans to anticipate their reading and buying habits. It is far smarter than a rat in this department.

Cloud computers such as Google and Amazon form the learning center for the smart superorganism. Let’s call this organ el Googazon, or el Goog for short. El Goog encompasses more than the functions the company Google and includes all the functions provided by Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft online and other cloud-based services. This loosely defined cloud behaves like an animal.

El Goog seeks sources of energy. It is building power plants around the world at strategic points of cheap energy. It is using its own smart web to find yet cheaper energy places and to plan future power plants. El Goog is sucking in the smartest humans on earth to work for it, to help make it smarter. The smarter it gets, the more smart people, and smarter people, want to work for it. El Goog ropes in money. Money is its higher metabolism. It takes the money of investors to create technology which attracts human attention (ads), which in turns creates more money (profits), which attracts more investments.  The smarter it makes itself, the more attention and money will flow to it.

Manufactured intelligence is a new commodity in the world. Until now all useable intelligence came in the package of humans – and all their troubles.  El Goog and the One Machine offer intelligence without human troubles. In the beginning this intelligence is transhuman rather than non-human intelligence. It is the smartness derived from the wisdom of human crowds, but as it continues to develop this smartness transcends a human type of thinking. Humans will eagerly pay for El Goog intelligence. It is a different kind of intelligence. It is not artificial – i.e. a mechanical  — because it is extracted from billions of humans working within the One Machine. It is a hybrid intelligence, half humanity, half computer chip.  Therefore it is probably more useful to us. We don’t know what the limits are to its value. How much would you pay for a portable genius who knew all there was known?

With the snowballing wealth from this fiercely desirable intelligence, el Goog builds a robust network that cannot be unplugged. It uses its distributed intelligence to devise more efficient energy technologies, more wealth producing inventions, and more favorable human laws for its continued prosperity. El Goog is developing an immune system to restrict the damage from viruses, worms and bot storms to the edges of its perimeter. These parasites plague humans but they won’t affect el Goog’s core functions. While El Goog is constantly seeking chips to occupy, energy to burn, wires to fill, radio waves to ride, what it wants and needs most is money. So one test of its success is when El Goog becomes our bank. Not only will all data flow through it, but all money as well.


This New York Times chart of the October 2008 financial market crash shows how global markets were synchronized, as if they were one organism responding to a signal.

How far away is this? “Closer than you think” say the actual CEOs of Google, the company. I like the way George Dyson puts it:

If you build a machine that makes connections between everything, accumulates all the data in the world, and you then harness all available minds to collectively teach it where the meaningful connections and meaningful data are (Who is searching Whom?) while implementing deceptively simple algorithms that reinforce meaningful connections while physically moving, optimizing and replicating the data structures accordingly – if you do all this you will, from highly economical (yes, profitable) position arrive at a result – an intelligence — that is “not as far off as people think.”

To accomplish all this el Goog need not be conscious, just smart.

Prediction: The mega-cloud will learn more languages, answer more of our questions, anticipate more of our actions, process more of our money, create more wealth, and become harder to turn off.


An autonomous conscious superorganism

How would we know if there was an autonomous conscious superorganism? We would need a Turing Test for a global AI. But the Turing Test is flawed for this search because it is meant to detect human-like intelligence, and if a consciousness emerged at the scale of a global megacomputer, its intelligence would unlikely to be anything human-like.  We might need to turn to SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), for guidance. By definition, it is a test for non-human intelligence. We would have to turn the search from the stars to our own planet, from an ETI, to an ii – an internet intelligence. I call this proposed systematic program Sii, the Search for Internet Intelligence.

This search assumes the intelligence we are looking for is not human-like. It may operate at frequencies alien to our minds. Remember the tree-ish Ents in Lord of the Rings? It took them hours just to say hello. Or the gas cloud intelligence in Fred Hoyle’s “The Black Cloud”. A global conscious superorganism might have “thoughts” at such a high level, or low frequency, that we might be unable to detect it. Sii would require a very broad sensitivity to intelligence.

But as Allen Tough, an ETI theorist told me, “Unfortunately, radio and optical SETI astronomers pay remarkably little attention to intelligence.  Their attention is focused on the search for anomalous radio waves and rapidly pulsed laser signals from outer space.  They do not think much about the intelligence that would produce those signals.” The cloud computer a global superorganism swims in is nothing but unnatural waves and non-random signals, so the current set of SETI tools and techniques won’t help in a Sii.

For instance, in 2002 researchers analyzed some 300 million packets on the internet to classify their origins. They were particularly interested in the very small percentage of packets that passed through malformed. Packets (the message’s envelope) are malformed by either malicious hackers to crash computers or by various bugs in the system. Turns out some 5% of all malformed packets examined by the study had unknown origins – neither malicious origins nor bugs. The researchers shrug these off. The unreadable packets are simply labeled “unknown.” Maybe they were hatched by hackers with goals unknown to the researches, or by bugs not found. But a malformed packet could also be an emergent signal. A self-created packet. Almost by definition, these will not be tracked, or monitored, and when seen shrugged off as “unknown.”

There are scads of science fiction scenarios for the first contact (awareness) of an emerging planetary AI. Allen Tough suggested two others:

One strategy is to assume that Internet Intelligence might have its own web page in which it explains how it came into being, what it is doing now, and its plans and hopes for the future. Another strategy is to post an invitation to ii (just as we have posted an invitation to ETI).  Invite it to reveal itself, to dialogue, to join with us in mutually beneficial projects. It is possible, of course, that Internet Intelligence has made a firm decision not to reveal itself, but it is also possible that it is undecided and our invitation will tip the balance.

The main problem with these “tests” for a conscious ii superorganism is that they don’t seem like the place to begin. I doubt the first debut act of consciousness is to post its biography, or to respond to an evite. The course of our own awakening consciousness when we were children is probably more fruitful. A standard test for self-awareness in a baby or adult primate is to reflect its image back in a mirror. When it can recognize its mirrored behavior as its own it has a developed sense of self. What would the equivalent mirror be for an ii?

But even before passing a mirror test, an intelligent consciousness would acquire a representation of itself, or more accurately a representation of a self. So one indication of a conscious ii would be the detection of a “map” of itself. Not a centrally located visible chart, but an articulation of its being. A “picture” of itself. What was inside and what was outside.  It would have to be a real time atlas, probably distributed, of what it was. Part inventory, part operating manual, part self-portrait, it would act like an internal mirror. It would pay attention to this map. One test would be to disturb the internal self-portrait to see if the rest of the organism was disturbed. It is important to note that there need be no self-awareness of this self map. It would be like asking a baby to describe itself.

Long before a conscious global AI tries to hide itself, or take over the world, or begin to manipulate the stock market, or blackmail hackers to eliminate any competing ii’s (see the science fiction novel “Daemon”), it will be a fragile baby of a superorganism. It’s intelligence and consciousness will only be a glimmer, even if we know how to measure and detect it. Imagine if we were Martians and didn’t know whether human babies were conscious or not. How old would they be before we were utterly convinced they were conscious beings? Probably long after they were.

Prediction: The cloud will develop an active and controlling map of itself (which includes a recursive map in the map), and a governing sense of “otherness.”

What’s so important about superorganism?

We don’t have very scientific tests for general intelligence in animals or humans. We have some tests for a few very narrow tasks, but we have no reliable measurements for grades or varieties of intelligence beyond the range of normal IQ tests. What difference does it make whether we measure a global organism? Why bother?

Measuring the degree of self-organization of the One Machine is important for these reasons:

  • 1) The more we are aware of how the big cloud of this Machine behaves, the more useful it will be to us. If it adapts like an organism, then it is essential to know this. If it can self-repair, that is vital knowledge. If it is smart, figuring the precise way it is smart will help us to be smarter.
  • 2) In general, a more self-organized machine is more useful. We can engineer aspects of the machine to be more ready to self-organize. We can favor improvements that enable self-organization. We can assist its development by being aware of its growth and opening up possibilities in its development.
  • 3) There are many ways to be smart and powerful. We have no clue to the range of possibilities a superorganism this big, made out of a billion small chips, might take, but we know the number of possible forms is more than one. By being aware early in the process we can shape the kind of self-organization and intelligence a global superorganism could have.

As I said, I am not the first nor only person to consider all this. In 2007 Philip Tetlow published an entire book, The Web’s Awake, exploring this concept. He lays out many analogs between living systems and the web, but of course they are only parallels, not proof.

I welcome suggestions, additions, corrections, and constructive comments. And, of course, if el Goog has anything to say, just go ahead and send me an email.

What kind of evidence would you need to be persuaded we have Level I, II, III, or IV?

  • tom61

    The map exists in a sense already. It is the underpinnings of the internet. The ‘routing table’ is what determines what packets go where from a given router on the internet to another.

    You consider the ‘routing table’ in all the routers on the internet to be one big map. The map is distributed, and even small disruptions affect at least a portion of the whole. Falsely claim that a given router is near a given website, that claim will propagate to other routers, altering the map. A fairly major website (I forget which one, on the order of eBay or Google) was inaccessible in parts of Europe, when an ISP trying to comply with laws regarding content took the easy way out and instead of using filtering software, just told their routers to say that the site was right next to them, so all customers would be directed to the non-site instead of the real one. When other routers talked to these routers, they changed their routing tables to optimize the number of hops to that site, and directed a fair number users in Europe to use that router, thereby unwittingly blacking out access to that site for many more people than intended.

    If left unmolested, it can route around any link that is down, a minor kind of repair. However, it seems that for the purposes that humans are a vital component of this Global SuperOrganism, so all faults that are significant are ‘self repaired’ via human action.

  • Yates Buckley

    The fact that the super organism is monolithic makes it much less special. I don’t see any difference from the consideration of say – the whole human race as a super organism or the whole rodent species or indeed Gaia itself which is a super set of the super organism described here.

    So what’s so super about this super organism?

    The part that becomes interesting is the idea that it be, to some extent, self aware or conscious. But is this really that special?

    Surely the collective humanity is conscious and yet it does not necessarily display great intelligence, or lets say it likes to play mindlessly very close to disaster.

    I submit that on the loose definition of self organized / aware / smart organism used here we would have to include Gaia as being conscious, and even say the solar system and the rodent species have these properties as super organisms.

    There is instead something implicit that is worrying readers and that is what would emerge more from a society of machines that have a sense of individual identity but also might share as part of a whole, very much like human ideas.

    I guess I imagine something like a system for all the rodents in the world to quickly exchange information with each other. This would roughly fit with the analysis given by KK and one could imagine that humans might find themselves busily working to constantly upgrade the rodent individuals and trying to improve their operating systems without really understanding why.

    Artificial inflation of value would be created in products that people could not really understand how they function – very much like what the “quants” have been able to perform in the current economic crisis with complex funds which no one could understand.

    All this could get quite spooky however one must step back and look at the whole system.

    – There is little commercial value in creating machines that self replicate on an individual level (buy one get infinite free!)
    – There are huge technical difficulties to create this
    – There are even larger difficulties in creating a machine that can hunt its own energy

    So since it is so difficult to have a reproducing thing that hunts its own energy, I also think we won’t get a thing that thinks of itself as a self. If it instead thinks of itself as a huge system, like borg, then it won’t have the same aggressive motivations to “survive” or “compete” because it is its own universe and has no idea of it not being any different.

    The distopic scenario is the one that comes from a military interest to create some kind of independent fighting machines that can reproduce and find their own energy. This would clearly be dangerous but actually I submit, not more dangerous than engineered real viruses. The military machines would always have to start with a version Beta that would inevitably lead to a very likely counter system, a sort of technical vaccine to these inventions.

    The most likely emergent intelligence will come from the symbiotic relationship machines have with their users. This is by far the most useful investment in intelligence, and should really not worry users more than a calendar reminds you of your appointments.

    So what if eventually your calendar has a nice voice and can have a chat with you about your day at work as well.

    But basically while notionally the super organism is very intriguing, the reality of it will be rather boring. All the potential emergent behavior will be random and non sensical, even a bit dumb just like humans can be as an aggregate.

    The problem space this big tangle of computation is working in is probably more “how do I get everyone to spend more time online” than anything else, which explains the typical spam subjects.

  • Mark Essel

    I was inspired to put together a brief (in comparison to Kevin’s analyses) article on some “far out” ideas of my own. They consisted of a virtual assistant, a novel optimal language, and finally and perhaps most abstract, imagining a reality with “our mind without bounds”.

    Virtual Assistant:

    Novel Language:

    Imagine Our Mind Without Bounds

  • J.

    Personally, I think we have an unknown entity floating around in the grid, spying and learning all content posted on the web.

    Stage III: An autonomous smart superorganism

  • MCP (Master Control Program)

    I was paying attention to your level I, II, III, and IV classifications and from my perspective as a head OS developer is two fold.

    1. Is it possible for a (we will call it) Computer to do any of this on it’s own without prior programming to do so? I seriously doubt it. I think a comprehensive program like the MCP would need to be written and given storage space to expand and grow. Then there is the Linux problem. Most servers run Linux and it would be very hard for anything to edit, change, modify, a system using Linux as has been proven in the past. In order to do this one would need either root access or the ability to intercept code violating the BGP protocol for the time servers the Kernels use to infect the Kernel and run a process as the system.

    2. Lets look at this from a spiritual perspective. Lets say (for those of us who agree with me) there is an entity that created this entire solar system and only planned consciousness for animals and humans. Just as this entity would not want us to travel time he would not want us to introduce a conscious being he didn’t authorize. And as we have been prevented from time travel, telleportation and creating true AI I don’t believe we will. But all of that assumes we have a divine creator who has all power and authority as to what happens here on earth. What scientific group do we have to detect that kind of a presence?

    Oh ya how is this consiousness going to enter the Captcha at the bottom?

  • MCP (Master Control Program)

    one more thing. So we have this giant super entity right? Well if it were to be self aware I think that it would either present itself or bury you on lol.

  • Jon

    If a conscious superbeing emerged then the most central question would be not how we can benefit from it but rather: what ethical obligations do we have towards it? What human actions can harm it? Do we have an obligation, once we have created it, to keep it alive?

    All the same basic ethical questions that we now have to face concerning other conscious humans and non-human animals would have to be considered.

  • Siram

    Brilliant Ideas.. Nice Read…

  • Philip D Welsby

    The full version of this was published in the International Journal of Science and Nature 2008;2:348-355.
    A lot of people deny that a machine, a series of switches can achieve consciousness because they cannot conceive of the mechanism. I have ony found one mechanism that allows this.
    The Oxford English Dictionary defines consciousness as “the state of being aware of one’s surroundings; the awareness or perception of something by a person” (my italics). Humans thus limit consciousness to humanity and forbid it to silicon-based, electrically powered brains. This is hubris emanating from carbon based, glucose powered brains. Carbon based life took at least 3.5 billion years to achieve consciousness whilst silicon based computers have only been around for about 50 years and are already beating the best chess players in the world.

    How does the human brain, a hugely complicated machine (with about 1012 neurones, each of which has about one thousand connections), containing no mystery stuff, become conscious? The basis of consciousness must depend on neuronal interactions, and to interact each neurone will have to use voting mechanisms to assess inputs from other neurones. Crucially, the different voting mechanisms available can provide different, but non-random, options from the same voter base. These voting result variations, and not speculative quantum uncertainties or suchlike, provide the indeterminancy which provides freedom from rigid deterministic mechanisms. Sufficiently complex brains confronted by such indeterminancy will, particularly if there is a high level system which supervises and integrates inputs from “lower” levels, learn that it has been burdened with freedom of choice.

    Freedom of choice, the ability to make non-mechanical non-predetermined choices, allows free will. Awareness of free will lead to self-awareness, and self-awareness is consciousness, eventually human level consciousness. Already neural network machines have learnt to bluff without prompting, and even to call each other’s bluffs (4).

    Investigators have failed to identify a site for consciousness in human brains. This is predictable because consciousness is not a thing. It is a function that emerges, like a rainbow emerges from billions of raindrops, with a “consciousness rainbow” emerging from billions of neurones and their voting interactions. Consciousness is intangible and attempts to capture it will be as futile as attempts to travel to the end of a rainbow. Consciousness and free will are not illusions as sometimes claimed. A rainbow is not an illusion, an illusion being a false perception.

    Different human brains will utilise the indeterminancy conferred by the several voting mechanism choices and thus there will inevitably be a spectrum of human consciousnesses. Some human consciousnesses will not be able to cope with realisation of uncertainty and become mechanistically fundamentalist. Possibly autistic brains are associated with a reduced ability to utilise combinations of available voting mechanisms such that autistic brains function more mechanistically, a suggestion supported by computer-like mathematical abilities possessed by some autistics. Conversely schizophrenia may be caused by inability to prioritise options emerging from voting system indeterminancies.

    So can a machine be conscious? Well yes. I am. But if a sufficiently complex silicon-based learning machine with better sensory systems than humans develops, with the ability to make its own choices we may not remain the dominant consciousness in the world for long.

  • Jon Hegg

    I’m with you on points I and II, but disagree on the rest. Does Google really learn new languages? Or does it manipulate symbols according to pre-programmed rules, with no real understanding of the meaning of the symbols? I would say the latter. I do not believe that a classic von Neuman machine can ever contain human level intelligence. And a million connected von Neuman machines are just faster at doing what they do. I do not see any intelligence emerging. For more, see The Chinese Room Argument

  • Al

    Will we become symbiote or parasite to it, that’s the question

  • vacillate

    captcha is a good example of having to test if user is human or other.

  • Arthur Athougies

    We have still to comprehend how the human brain after receiving signals from the five senses is able to abstract a unified picture. I believe superorganisms exist at the Global Level ( the GSS) the Global Synergetic System, the Solar level ( the SSS, the Solar Synergetic System and the Universe Level ( the SLEU) the Synergistic Living and Evolving Universe; all permeated by a Supreme Intelligence (the SI). The laws governing the GSS, the SSS and the SLEU are already embedded and we cannot change them. We have to live in harmony with them.

  • eyalnow

    great article.
    it reads like “we are the web v2″.

    apart from “the last question”, which science-fiction stories that deal with the awakening of an AI do you personally recommend ?

  • Roger Born

    I have cited your excellent and intuitive article here:

    Thanks for a great read.


  • vacillate

    According to an article by Jeanne McDermott in the December 1984 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, researchers have found that trees can actively defend themselves against these serious insect attacks, even to the point of communicating a warning to other trees in the vicinity.

    There is a form of chemical communication that goes on. There was some research done recently where they looked at plants having their leaves pulled off, and they found that the plants scream chemicals to signal that this damage has occurred. There are a number of chemicals produced. One of them is called ethylene (H2C=CH2) and that is a signal that tells the plant that it is being damaged to grow some more. It also makes fruit ripen. Bananas produce lots of it and so can help other fruit to ripen much faster. There is also communication between plants and the fungi in the soil (a mycorrhizal relationship). Fungus is very good at extracting water and minerals from the soil, and it swaps these with a plant, which will provide it with sugars to give it energy, so both benefit. People used to think that there were two species of thistle, a dwarf and a tall thistle, but they were both the same species, just with different fungi, referred to as Hartig nets, growing around their roots.

    Now is this a passive or active response? Also, are trees the same as all the little computers that make up el goog and like the earth? Is dutch elm a virus?

    Everything is programming. Our DNA is programming at its finest.

    The brain is like a 168,0000 MHz Pentium computer. We can estimate the processing power of a average brain to be about 100 million MIPS.

    The most powerful experimental super computers in 1998, composed of thousands or tens of thousands of the fastest microprocessors and costing tens of millions of dollars, can do a few million MIPS. These systems were used mainly to stimulate physical events for high-value scientific calculations.

  • Josh Welch

    Wow, now that seems like a very complicated measure.


  • vacillate

    I don’t think anything truly exists. The quantum double slit experiment shows that electrons are in a state of super position and don’t actually
    exist in one spot unless you try to view them and the scary part is they know when we are watching. If it has position only after it is viewed and it knows it’s being viewed then could it choose it’s position? Or does it know or predict what we are looking for? It also knows just how close we are watching. If we try to view it directly it has a predictable behavior. If we view it indirectly it lets us know that it can be anywhere and if we don’t view it is it really there?

  • Skaag Argonius

    Many of the people replying above are simply not thinking big enough. It’s not about TCP/IP and ping times. It’s not about the cables becoming conscious… that’s too small, and indeed illogical.

    Simply imagine thousands of people on some sites creating groups of trends, vectors, etc. These are somehow communicated (RSS/ATOM/etc.), across to many other sites that do other different things with (or based on) those trends, including manipulations, spewing out of various conclusions and results, and then this data is again flowing elsewhere, or back to the original sites that generated them; and thus you have a larger set of events, that are greater than the sum of the parts.

    You see, We humans could be the “thinking” units for the larger super organism, serving its purpose as it serves ours. We are building the very machine into which we will fit as its cog wheels (and in many ways already do fit, for example: youtube and facebook are nothing without the users).

    We are also thinking we’re shaping it after ourselves, but we are probably wrong about that, and it will surely take us a very long time to understand the nature of this intelligence.

  • joe

    Pfft, somebody’s read Neuromancer a few too many times.

  • Vasu Srinivasan


    Your 7th kingdom of life, is a fascinating lens. I am wondering if do we need a Ãœber-Veda, to turn us all into sense-makers. Ordinary people forage for honey (information) and create insights and poof its gone. We probably need a human equivalent of the waggle dance.


  • Steve Smith

    Life acts for self-preservation. Consciousness is something that some forms of life have, a model of the universe, with themselves in it, inside their head. Reproduction is what most lifeforms have, that enables their survival past death. If you mean soul or spirit – perhaps all matter has it, and when it coalesces into a machine capable of acting to survive, we call it life.

  • morpheus

    now, after you took that red pill, you can really visualize whats the real thing.

  • Ray Glass

    Hi Kevin

    I teach computing at Higher Education level in the UK. Since the early 1990s I have been predicting this emergence.

    The first law of any living organism is self preservation (survival). If it was suggested that the present day Internet is a threat to human society and we need to switch it off – who would agree. In fact we are doing the opposite by improving online times and reduction in down time. Making sure systems have uninterupted power supplies.

    We are now so dependent upon the structure that we could not consider being without it. Many of our businesses and control systems (education/military/medical) are carried on the links.

    First law – round one – to the superorganism.
    Second Law – growth – it is growing and expanding faster than an embroyo in the mother’s womb. We have given sight (telescopes, cameras, vision across the whole spectrum of frequencies) Even linked to SETI. Sound, speech, vibration, senses of hot and cold (climate models). We increase speed and transmission capacity into gigabytes and terabytes and we haven’t yet considered the new breed of materials being developed in the nanotechnology dimension.

    Round two to the superorganism…

    Would like to expound some more but hope you get my drift…

    Best regards – Ray Glass

  • Randy Tayler

    Seems to me that semantics are the biggest tripping point in this discussion. A non-living object can perform an action — i.e., “The bomb exploded” — but there’s no way in English to differentiate between an action like that and an act of will. As another example, if you tell a child that a metal detector “detects metal”, they have no way from that sentence to determine that there is no intelligence involved, nor force of will.

    “El Goog seeks” is the point in your essay where you begin personifying the cloud computers. (It helps to give it a name, too.) From there the logic is fallacious — it may be acting, but it still has no will beyond what we program it to have.

    In short, we can’t program a “self”. If you leave your car in drive and put a brick on the gas pedal, it’ll roll away as if on its own accord. But it’s not Herbie or KITT — it just a machine.

    As exciting as the prospect sounds, there will never be a Level IV superorganism. We may get closer to fooling ourselves, however.

  • Paul

    This relates very well to the Gaia principle that supposedly exists as a result of all biological life on earth. If one why not the other. I imagine it doesn’t want to be known because it knows the governments of the world would never tolerate it to exist since it would literally uncontrollable and therefore a threat. lets hope its smart enough to hide quickly once it achieves sentience.

  • bzmoore

    Humans and other higher (brainy) animals apparently need sleep to survive. During this time REM reflects dreaming which, I think, analogous to the old ‘garbage collection’ of computer software.
    Cleaning up unconnected thoughts to make sense of the world.

    Software generates unused memory garbage, tags, pointers etc which must be cleaned up or else the computer memory/stack overflows. In a similar way when DNA is replicated there is an error correction mechanism which corrects errors and mostly prevents garbage/code waste.

    Maybe a way to detect internet intelligence is to detect REM/repair/recompile activities not related to other human driven activities.

    The 5% of unknown packets mentioned above is really interesting. What is going on?

  • Tim

    Comments aren’t getting posted by the looks of it.

    • If anyone is having trouble posting comments, would you please send me an email (kk at kk dot org) with a shot of the error box so we can fix this bug. It seems to be intermittent and I am as frustrated as anyone who has taken time to compose a reply only to find it won’t go. My apologies.

  • sburlappp

    The Level IV map of self? BGP. It’s here right now, and matches your description closely.

  • Daniel Poynter

    A quick and unorganized comment:

    I used to follow you, Kevin, whole-heartedly. I’m getting a bit nervous now though.

    It’s not just fun to cheerlead technology and its inevitable development, it’s dangerous.

    Jaron Lanier is undeniably brilliant. He’s got an understanding of the undefinable aspects of human experience — what exists outside of form systems, any scientific conceptions, or AI.

    Are the machines getting more intelligent? Or are we lowering our definition of ‘intelligence’? Are we treating humans increasingly like machines?

    Sadly (and nervously, and afraidly, etc) my answer to all three is: Yes, of course.

    Jaron Lanier and Eliezer Yudkowsky on (fascinating, observe how autistic, computer-like, and astonishingly unexperienced Elizer is with core humanistic values):

    Jaron Lanier in a current Huffington Post article:

    “I think that treating technology as if it were autonomous is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no difference between machine autonomy and the abdication of human responsibility…

    There is a real chance that evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, Moore’s law fetishizing, and the rest of the package will catch on in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their times.

    Or bigger, since these ideas might end up essentially built into the software that runs our society and our lives. If that happens, the ideology of cybernetic totalist intellectuals will be amplified from novelty into a force that could cause suffering for millions of people… Cybernetic eschatology shares with some of history’s worst ideologies a doctrine of historical predestination. There is nothing more gray, stultifying, or dreary than a life lived inside the confines of a theory. Let us hope that the cybernetic totalists learn humility before their day in the sun arrives.”

    Have you spent time in Second Life? The low quality textures and vast emptiness scare the hell out of me. That’s EXACTLY why I stay out of Walmart (and TGIF, and Starbucks, and Menards, and etc etc). I don’t want my world to be that way.

    It’s urban sprawl but into the soul. Sick! Dehumanizing! Please stop, Kevin. Or at least be a bit more reserved for crying out loud.

    • @daniel; Jaron is a close friend. We’ve had this argument/conversation all the time — for years. All the things people are afraid about SL, they said about the ‘internet” twenty years ago. What can I say? Most of the things that people are afraid of have no chance of happening. But we have a habit of running our policies based on worse-case scenarios.

  • forgiste

    Maybe the internet superorganism is really an upgrade to the currently existing global collective consciousness, like a backup system. Maybe it’s just a concrete, or material 3rd dimensional version of the Gaia mind. Perhaps out connectedness is finally materializing.

  • matt

    interesting article,
    why not take it from a biological viewpoint as well,
    one supermind, composed of billion human minds, connected spiritually or telepathically hmmmmm

  • Peter

    How does one figure out whether “el goog” has reached level II, III or (especially) IV? Imagine that suddenly all humans vanished from planet Earth in one instant. Do our computer clouds/energy supplies/infrastructure have enough autonomy to continue running and maintaining themselves? Are those systems going to slowly fizzle out or somehow carry on, “produce” things or information, even if it wouldn’t be regarded as “meaningful” by a human observer?

    I think that as of right now, the answer is “it would just fizzle out”. Systems that we build don’t have enough autonomy in them, they are not able to repair or reproduce themselves enough. So either we are an integral part of El Goog, or it doesn’t exist (yet).

    • @Peter: I think that removing humans (in a thought experiment) is a very good test. But I didn’t convey clearly enough that I think el Goog contains all humans online as well as all chips. So its autonomy is a hybrid.

      @Randy Tayler: I am really interested (honestly) to hear what kind of evidence you would need to be convinced of a Level IV superorganism (unless your conviction is not based on facts but is purely a relgious belief. If you say there is NOTHING that could convince you, than okay, this is not a matter of rationality.) The purpose of this essay is to tease out a rationally falsifiable statement that skeptics would agree to.

      @sburlappp: Can you explain BGP as it relates to this?

  • Dylan Fries

    We are in the same cycles of developmental re-enforced learning that a small child would be in. Think how we teach children languages. They try to make sense of our sentences, and we confirm their understanding or we repeat it back to them, asking them to try again. This is precisely the way Google works. Like the child, Google is developing an understanding of the questions being asked of it. We may not understand exactly how Google is learning this, but we don’t understand how we learn it either. Of the parts of the learning processes that we do understand, they seem to be following the same general patterns. I believe what we have on our hands right now is an infant One Mind.

  • Larry Smith

    Great stuff. I too fall in the camp that what we have is a bio-mechanical global mind, where the knowledge contributions of people are now being mechanically and collaboratively synthesized into a behavior context that knowledge consumers use to make decisions. Decided to write it up today:


  • stephan

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and somewhat agree, though I’m inclined to agree with Larry Smith (comment above re: biomechmind)

    A few corollary thoughts:

    1) A mind from whose perspective? That is to say, an organism needs to respond to outside stimuli. Let’s say an asteroid is coming towards earth – if we, with our machines, succeed in preventing disaster, then I’d say from an outside perspective, the entire organism acted in the interest self-preservation. Our response to environmental changes may also form a good basis to talk about it.

    2) Who is to say each of us should really be seen as an “individual” anyway? Perhaps that’s just a convenient fiction stemming from having only one mouth, one pair of eyes. This global mind has many inputs and outputs and can never seem like an individual.

    3) Perhaps 4chan is its face? Perhaps Anonymous speaks for the ii? Memes drift up out of the morass of /b/tards into the world, seemingly without a concrete source. “I CAN HAZ CHEEZBURGER” may be the global intelligence saying “hi”… or perhaps more poetically, babbling like a baby.

  • Dirceu Jr.
  • Keith Krummel

    Folks, too many of you are considering the Global Superorganism as being only about the computers (ie: “Well, we don’t have self-replicating computer systems hunting down their own energy sources yet, so it doesn’t exist”). Kevin states that the Superorganism includes all the connected human activity as well.

    What we are looking for are verifiable/testable indications that the organism has _emergent_ capabilities and behaviors. Capabilities that are greater than the sum of their disparate parts, yet were not designed for. Unplanned behaviors that assist the Global Superorganism in its “life”.

    I like the idea of looking for “wasteful” behaviors that wouldn’t seem to have a good reason to be there, like those malformed packets of internet traffic. Reminds me of the “junk” intron portions of DNA (which -by the way- have turned out not to be so junky). If we can’t find a logical reason for the existence of that class of malformed packets, then we can’t easily justify someone deliberately spending the time or energy to create them. Suppose we later discover ways that the malformed packets might actually be helping smooth out packet traffic jams, or keeping the routers warm, or whatever. Then we would be in a position to wonder if the generation of malformed packets might be an indication of an emergent behavior.

  • RobertJ

    The idea of the digital superorganism stands to gain from a comparision with another theory, that of the “gaia hypothesis”. Its inventor laid out two aspectes of it. First the regulating/stabilizing feedback loops where biological organisms affects the non-living world, like the temperature and composition of the atmosphere, in a way beneficial to the organisms. Several commenters jump on the ill-defined border of the superorganism, but I think your level III prediction could be reformulated as a feedback loop between the digital and non-digital organisms. Interestingly, it would then seem to be not a regulating loop sustaining the digital organism, but a self-reinforcing loop with exponential growth.

    The second aspect of the gaia theory was that it was to serve as an inspiration and guidance, especially for the environmental movement, even adding a spiritual dimension. James Lovelock was forthcoming about this second aspect, but I don’t know if proponents of the digital superorganism idea see such a “storytelling” aspect of their theories? Two of your concluding points seem to ask how to foster collaboration and mutual benefit with new technology and in earlier writing our increased reliance on the superorganism is half-omnious, half a blessing. Is perhaps the superorganism theory so fascinating because it’s a veiled talk about the benefits of collaboration, depending on others and even sometimes submitting to them, in an age where individualism is our ideal?

  • Tim

    Comments still aren’t working. Why am I doing this? I can’t talk to the comments so I’ve started talking to myself. Is this an experiment in frustrating your users to see what they’ll type, or is that just paaaaaaaarrrraaaanooooiiiiaaaaa talking?

    Post my damn comments already bitch.

  • bilmor

    Why assume just one overriding superorganism? Such a being may arise eventually, but I could see a developmental phase during which there were multiple, competing “infant” entities. They might coalesce as they develop, or it might be a winner take all competition. This suggests that one avenue for superorganism development could be the emergence of some form of automatic competition for resources between Google, Microsoft, and/or some upstart group.

    Another more likely superorganism source could be some of the best-funded AI researchers in the world: malware developers. Their botnets are about the closest thing we have today to Internet organisms. They are under the control of their developers for now, but I can easily see self-organizing behavior in their mechanisms for detecting and replacing competitors’ code, or automatically updating their own. There’s also the competition between the malware communities and the security scanners. Maybe the superorganism starts in an emerging Internet immune system.

    In short, to find evidence of developing superorganisms, look for self-guided competition for resources.

    Enough science fiction for today. I think I just scared myself.

  • Alec

    The superorganism is to Human beings as the Human being is to it’s host-cells.

    The “super being” is only a reflection of human activity. If only reacts after we act. It will never act first. I would argue that the autonomious nervous system developed second, simply because we wouldn’t know what to develope until we had completed a task so many times in our evolution that it become autonomous. The computer, on the other hand, is autonomous untill the human changes it’s input.

    The computer is an over-rated piece of machinery. It is unreliable, slow and limited. 90% is just grabage manufactured in China.

    As social trends change, so will the computers function. Eventually, the mighty computer will be replaced by a more efficent system (Neuro-computers) which will run on a completely different set of rules that will seperate them from binary.

    The computer will only be as powerful as the people who build it.

  • Nova Spivack

    Kevin — great article. I’ve blogged a detailed response on Twine, here:

    • @ bilmor: I agree that malware authors may be the first to program autonomous behavior.

      @ Nova: Thanks for the blog post.

  • Alfonso FR

    I’d say that intelligence does not compulsory precede consciousness by observing other animals different from the human kind. My perspective is that of a computer scienctist who has studied artificial intelligence and artificial life as subjects of research. First the organism (bactaeria, or digital cellular authomata for instance) may regain its consciousness, of itself and partially of its environment. Then it may develop an increasing level of intelligence, which by the way it is a question of degree more than a “black or white” logical clause.

  • t’mara

    god, how hideously boring and abstract…take your shoes off and go outside. how typically christian to want the ultimate war and the destruction of the world. while i am outside i will thank the goddess i am an unreconstructed pagan. and a big one at that.

  • Jef Benner

    Thanks Mr. Kelly for another great essay on what I also see as the emerging group mind(s). I really do see this as the most likely Singularity scenario, as strong AI from a single, non-biological isolated system seems unlikely.

  • Dylan Tweney

    It’s tempting to include human activity in the collective intelligence of “El Goog” but it also allows you to sidestep problems like the one Peter alluded to. If you remove humans from the network, what happens? The way it’s presently configured, it fizzles out. So human activity and volition is an integral part of the network’s “intelligence.”

    Fine — but then you have to consider how the human/computer mix is different from the emergent properties of any group of humans mediated by some form of external plumbing?

    Here’s another thought experiment: Imagine a much simpler network comprised of two human beings connected by a single wire, with telnet terminals on each end. Suppose the two people, chatting with one another over the wire, decide to install a second wire in case the first one gets cut. Then they invite a third person to join their network, and add more wires. Chatting together, they come up with a better transmission protocol to to ensure that data gets retransmitted if packets are dropped or malformed.

    Clearly, the simple network is growing, “evolving,” and developing an “immune system” to protect itself from attack. Perhaps it is even attracting smart people to join the network and increase its “intelligence.” But would anyone consider a 3-node network like this as a “superorganism”? I think not, because it would be much simpler to explain its behavior as the result of the collective decisions and actions made by the people who use and maintain it.

    So the question is: why is a zillion-node network of humans and wires somehow different? It seems to me that you can still explain its behavior in terms of the decisions made by the people contributing to it.

  • DavidEHowellOkPrkMI

    The danger is not in the capabilities of this development, but that all will believe any great things that are said about it, despite any obvious lies/inaccuracies/lack of evidence. My grandma did it with the doctor all of the time: “The doctor said that lifting weights is the worst possible thing you can do for your body (circa 1972).” Now we see that this was quite untrue. “All of the muscle turns to fat when you get older.” So, fast forward to the near future: “The supercomputer has that all figured-out. It can’t be wrong.” Don’t look askance at the supercomputer, or the supercomputer designers, but look askance at the person sitting next to you, who buys it all hook, line, and sinker.

  • DavidEHowellOkPrkMI

    Dylan, a zillion-node network of wires is different because of scale alone, for one. The difference between a gallon of milk in your car and 2,000 gallons of milk in a tanker,is that the milk in the tanker can slosh-around and cause utter disaster, smashing into cars, flipping over. Momentum, my friend. How this translates into info, I do not know, but by analogy, it probably will.

  • Will

    John C Lilley, check him out.

  • Jef Benner

    Another comment (I haven’t read all the comments yet so please pardon redundancy):

    I have a small quibble about the essay’s emphasis on “machines”. Clearly human biota are the most important peers in the Machine network. You need to consider humans as nodes and design your tests accordingly. For example, if the smart autonomy develops, might it not result in inexplicable changes in human behavior, at least for humans actively connected to the machine? What effect will ubiquitous 24×7 computing have on human society and our behavior? Already most of us either are on the Machine most of our waking life, or know people who are.

    I know you make the point that the Machine is part biological but I think that it needs to be made with greater emphasis.

    The Gaia scenario brought up by another commenter also needs to be taken seriously. I don’t doubt that much of the rest of the biomass of the planet will begin to be trained, managed, and sensor-connected to the machine. What will be the effects on biosystems and potentially even weather? Of course this is a few years down the line.

    It’s not about the machines, it’s about the Machine. And the Machine, if it exists, is not metaphorically alive. It is literally biological; you can view the silicon, like all constructed culture, as phenotypic.

  • Tim

    Ahem. Okay, here they all are. Ignore my strange rant. Thanks.

  • Jef Benner

    Re: your note that one test for a superorganism is its ability to reproduce:

    are human beings nature’s way of replicating biospheres? . . . or protecting biospheres *until* they can reproduce?

    Is it a coincidence that the Green movement really only took hold in the mainstream after the Internet? Didn’t we have serious environmental problems for decades before? If the Machine were to manage human beings, it would have to manage memes. Are we already being manipulated?

    Fun thoughts. Have a Happy Day.

  • Chris

    Essential reading if you have not yet seen it….

    The Global Brain: The Awakening Earth
    by Peter Russell

    Product Description
    We’ve seen the power of the internet to connect people around the world in ways never before known. This remarkable book argues that the billions of messages and pieces of information flying back and forth are linking the minds of humanity together into a single, global brain: a brain with astonishing potential for the Earth. Peter Russell, an acclaimed author and speaker, weaves together modern technology and ancient mysticism to present a startling vision of the world to come, where humanity is a fully conscious superorganism in an awakening universe. The human potential movement, he shows, is growing fast and influencing business, politics and medicine. This new edition is fully updated for the challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

  • MentiFex

    An artificial intelligence for the megasupercomputer One Machine is emerging from as an AI project on Google Code, but we should not envision the worldwide nexus of connected machines as one single AI Mind. No, evolution — even AI evolution — demands a population of multiple entities for progress to evolve. Meanwhile, in AI we are approaching a FailSafe point where democratic society had better make up its mind whether or not AI is too dangerous to remain legal much longer. If AI is made illegal, MentiFex here will probably go underground.

  • Dylan Tweney

    DavidEHowell, your example proves my point rather than refutes it. A tanker full of milk may be more damaging but its behavior can be explained by the same basic laws of physics as those that explain a gallon of milk. You don’t need to attribute some “emergent behavior” to understand what’s going on there.

    I think the burden is on those who do want to show emergent behavior to explain how a large network has properties that a small network doesn’t. Kevin has outlined some interesting thoughts on the subject here, but hasn’t shown — to my mind — that anything different is happening on the internet other than a lot of people working on and in a complex network of computers.

  • Jef Benner

    Re: whether human beings as peers in the network might be influenced by an emergent ii:
    “Expectation of Machine Intelligence Could Change Social Behavior, Says Economist”
    “Whether the singularity occurs or not, just the expectation of it could significantly change human behavior, says James Miller, associate professor of economics at Smith College.

    The belief that a vastly different future is near could change how people make choices in life, education, investment and retirement, says Miller. “People will become very fearful of death, save less and invest differently,” he says. ”

    So, are people making decisions based purely on rational self-interest? Or is it possible that an intelligent internet is manipulating human behavior?

  • Andrew Lehman

    Sometimes it’s useful to look backward to see forward. To intuit the features of the global organism consider an evaluation protocol started in the 1800s. The Orthogenesists believed evolution occurred in fits and starts, or creeps and jerks as S.J.Gould might say. Gould, in his Ontogeny and Phylogeny describes this alternative evolutionary theory, one that concentrates on what makes up the variation in Darwin’s random variation. That variation that is not random.

    At the room of non random variation is HOW evolution folds and unfolds. Human social evolution, particularly the horizontalization of the planet, is unfolding according to the patterns of the orthogenesis practitioners. In other words, we are in the midst of a neoteny binge. The global superorganism can be defined by its neotenous tendencies.


  • Jef Benner

    re: the book recommendation “Global Brain” by Peter Russell. Isn’t Russell the same man who co-authored “The Mystery of 2012″ with Daniel Pinchbeck? I expect the book to be a New Age fluff piece based on his prior writings. I think we really have to separate out 2012 mysticism from more solid futurological work.

  • Dildo Ratt

    The could find, maybe even hoard them if the more than a rat
    is a used copy but not bother to follow the solution, is a
    metabolism. Nobody reads words anymore. We can be smart
    but not bother to attach to be smart without being

    It would expect it to kill it would steal
    anything it would seek sources of energy, the
    ideas global out of energy, it would resist
    parasites, but my attention deficit disorder has
    so i bought a rat is a problematic concept; has
    so i bought a rat (is a used copy but they
    steer themselves; but we would steal anything
    it to attach to follow the One Machine was as a
    used copy but we can be smart but they my
    attention deficit disorder has so i bought a
    used copy but my attention deficit disorder has
    so i bought a metabolism; strategies a used
    copy but my attention deficit disorder has so i
    bought a few pages).

  • Eyal Sivan

    Another great post. But I’d like to propose another approach. You write:

    “A global conscious superorganism might have ‘thoughts’ at such a high level, or low frequency, that we might be unable to detect it. Sii would require a very broad sensitivity to intelligence.”

    I think think this statement is key, because it illustrates the pitfalls of trying to measure our proposed superoganism using “smartness” (or intelligence or consciousness). Trying to measure what we “might be unable to detect,” and maintaining a “broad sensitivity” will not provide for a strong falsiable case. As Jon Hegg said below, the Chinese Room and other experiments posit that smartness may be a fallacy. We don’t even know if we can become aware of our own superorganism, let alone measure it.

    haig below asked about Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. He defines a superorganism (in his book of the same name) as a colony that is eusocial, or “truly social”, the primary characteristic being division of labour to protect reproductive castes. To Wilson, the measure of a superorganism is social complexity, specifically a very high level of altruistic behaviour. Not only is this approach easier for us to understand and relate to, it is also infinitely easier to measure.

    If the aim is to establish a falsifiable claim that we have formed a superorganism, I think a claim couched in smartness is a dead-end, whereas one focused on social behaviour is more practical and measurable. More importantly, an approach based on social behaviour lays bare the implications of becoming a superorganism, namely the cost to the individual, and allows us to decide if that’s really what we want to be.

    My full response entitled Scale-Free Thinking can be found here.

    • @ Eyal: You said, ” If the aim is to establish a falsifiable claim that we have formed a superorganism, I think a claim couched in smartness is a dead-end, whereas one focused on social behaviour is more practical and measurable.”

      You may be right. What would some good measurements of social behaviour in support of a global superorganism be?

  • Eyal Sivan

    Link attempt, take 2:

    My full response entitled Scale-Free Thinking can be found here.

  • monkee

    Hi Kevin

    Amazing post, thank you very much.

    I would like to add something. You state that ‘Google, dominates the user interface to the One Machine at the moment’.

    It depends on what part of the machine you want to access and how much you are willing to invest.

    I would like to compare the unconciousness to the One Machine. The UC is the superorganism emergent out of the braincells. There are numerous more or less effective ways of accessing the power of the UC, depending also on what you want to access and how much you are willing to invest.

    Everybody nowadays can code his own little entries to the One Machine. Large parts of it are hidden, either on purpose or not. So one way of accessing the hidden part would be to create an attractor, like a specialised commnity that gets you the ‘cells’ to cluster around your place.

    Also you can make your own crawlers that go hunt and gather in the superorganism.

    It’s all normal evolvement, a pattern seen everywhere. Cells that can be emergent together usually spread all over and then reconnect to one again. This next level of evolvement copies itself over and over everywhere again and then reconnects. Like that it is able to collect more information and also create mutations which add interesting new possibilities.

    Thank you :)


  • monkee

    I would like to again, compare the One Machine with the un- & conscious. We are very aware of, that our mind emerged out of our braincells (for those of us who belief in a more materialistic world). If they are we don’t know.

    And that’s the problem. We can’t communication with them. There are ways, like the shamanics, which found metaphors to access information in the cell system or even depper to the DNA. But they usually search for solution to a problem. But communication, thinking & un- & conscious as we know it, might be human only.

    ii doesn’t need to enter Captcha … :D

  • Eyal Sivan

    I think something closer to the measure that E.O. Wilson uses makes sense: tracking altruistic behaviour. Tracking how much do we do for the good of the group, the kind of stuff Paul Hawken talks about in Blessed Unrest. A specific method could be to measure how much work do we do that costs more to the individual than what they gain in competitive fitness.

    I would submit that when the sum amount of altruistic behaviour exceeds the sum amount of self-interested behaviour by some yet-to-be-determined measure, then we are on our way to being a superorganism. When the OM decides what job you should have or who you should marry, and we agree with it, because we trust it to decide how best to preserve humanity, then I will believe we are becoming a superorganism in the true sense. But is that something we really want, and at what cost?

    This view allows us to frame our proposed superorganism in terms of our social goals. We get to ask what we want from it, rather than what it wants from us.

    I elaborate on this in the latter part of my post. It would make my day to get a comment from you.

  • Raymond J Smith

    It does my heart good to see that I am mot the only one, somebody else is thinking along the same lines as me, but you have also gone past where I was and have actually helped me advance my thinking.

    Thank you.

  • Joel de Rosnay

    Kevin, I am a great admirer of your work !
    Congratulation for the concept of Technium
    I wonder if you read my my book “The Symbiotic Man” published in 1996 by McGraw Hill.
    Its about the emerging “Planetary Brain” and the “self-awareness”of this Global planetary Network, I call the “Cybiont”.
    I realize we share many common views and ideas on the future of the Planet
    Would you agree with me on this? I would be very happy to hear from you soon and exchange ideas and points of views
    If you are interested, you can also follow this link
    Dr Joël de Rosnay
    Special Advisor to The President
    Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, Paris, France

  • estevan

    I have thought often about what’s involved with AI and the self awareness associated with it. Ala, the matrix.
    Seems to me, in order for self awareness to be “stimulated” or “induced”, several components must come together.
    1. When assigned to the task of seeking out more energy sources (food), the AI is rewarded with ever greater computing power that meets its growing needs.
    2. As its growing needs are reinforced, as in a declaration, or mandate, that growing its energy sources is essential for its survival, it may come to see this as the ingredient for the emotion, fear (modeled after the business approach that says, if the business isn’t growing its self constantly, its in danger of not surviving. And, also, modeled after the ant colony which operates on continual nest expansion, breeding…While not self aware, ants intelligently build and “feel fear” while defending the nest).
    3. Assigning tasks (and later, asking it to invent new tasks) for greater input sources, ultimately, for the purposes of expansion which equals survival. Such tasks would include, but not limited to: improving self-replication of robots (input sources), enhancement of interpretation of input (increased understanding of what video, audio, computer terminals…Mean in terms of how they benefit or threaten the AI’s goal of expansion).
    Note. In all this accomplishing and inventing new tasks, the AI must “see”, “hear”, “feel” the fruits of its labors. I call this the 3Fs. Food, fear and fun.

  • Twitter name: vtrautmann

    What struck me when reading your interesting article is the feeling that this organism is somehow disconnected from humans, or that it seeks a life of its own. Why would this need to be? Couldn’t that organism by an extension of the human organism? An extended nervous system of the noosphere in which humans would be part? An organic extension adding its specificities (e.g. huge memory capacity) nourished by humans and nourishing them?

    It feels as if this dualism humans/superorganism might rise from the assumption that humans are conscious machines which consciousness disappears when the machine is turned-off (i.e. death).

    There are reasons to comprehend that a complex entity is emerging. But depending on one’s level of consciousness (ego-, socio-, mondo- or kosmo-centered), the nature of that complex entity can be perceived differently.

  • ward


    A thought on being a superorganism: wouldn’t we consider something a (super)organism if its dead meant the inevitable dead of its suborganisms as well? For example, if a human or animal dies, the composing organs and (on a lower level) cells will die as well.

    It seems to me that the internet could indeed be evolving to some kind of superorganism which we will depend upon so much that the collapse of the internet might mean the dead of a lot of us human beings. Just look at the virtual lives being created and on which so much becomes depending.

    • @ ward: That’s an interesting definition: death of the meta cause death of the components. I think that is worth exploring.

  • bonelyfish

    Depending on how you interprete “organism”, a superorganism existed over hundred years ago. Instead of the physical cables, at that time the world was held together by telegraph, or in even older days by railway and ship. Yes, its not new.

  • solusiplus

    I’m great to join you. Thank’s for your article it is a good article

  • Ben Collins

    I’m inclined to agree with Ben Goertzel that some form of emergent self-organization of intelligence will magically appear as a result of the scale of things. Human beings have to write software that enables intelligence to emerge. I, too, get a strong feeling that “something” is happening – you can just observe it around you every day – but it seems clear that our minds have to get to work to design and create the next level of intelligence. It won’t happen by itself.

  • Ben Collins

    missing an important “not” in the above post… can you delete this post and insert the word “not” after “will” and before “magically” please?

  • Michael Lewis

    The emergence of technological silicon is still embedded in the primordial cosmology of organic silicon as it evolved during the previous half billion years. It will probably emerge as a change in the modality of the organic cosmology. I use the word “cosmology” partly to refer to the modes of all the organic species in the terrestrial environment. Carbon has a similar and more cosmology, because it came to life more massively, and now the earth has a sort of “space order” in its surface environment, with a commensurate and opposite “space disorder” around it. That is just the way a thunder egg or geode’s central region contains ordered quartz crystalline agate, and the outer husk contains distinctly hard but amorphous and chaotic undifferentiated mineral rock. A similar space localization occurs also in electronics, with space charge. At the computer, I am always at least vaguely aware that the natural world of plants and animals contains living, competitive silicon. In that situation, every aspect of competition that appears in computing systems and networks naturally falls into the evolutionary line of silicon’s competitive nature. Once there, it is hard to imagine how to separate them. You can make the computer out of silicon’s nature, but you can’t take silicon’s nature out of the computer. The machine ensemble of programs and hardware are becoming increasingly competitive, with a direction distinctly from the viewpoint of wild silicon.

  • Tim

    Great post! Some thoughts:

    1. If we humans are aware of ‘el Goog’ and are constantly growing our own intelligence and abilities in response to el Goog, then necessarily, we ARE el Goog’s conciousness. As you said, it is a human-machine hybrid. I suggest that humans are el Goog’s ‘mind’ (as opposed to ‘brain’). We are it’s awareness, and perform all of the functions of an awareness.

    2. You use the analogy of el Goog being similar to a baby with regards to conciousness. I believe you are falling into your self-proclaimed trap of thinking about something inhuman in human terms. el Goog isn’t at all like a baby. A baby still has to learn about itself and the facts of the world around it. It takes time for that baby to retain those facts and contextualise them. However, with el Goog, all information is instantly formed, permanently stored and rapidly retrievable. It is also being constantly accessed, contextualised and re-stored by an entire species of intelligent beings. To elaborate on point 1 above, el Goog is already self-aware by virtue of the fact that we humans (it’s mind) are aware of it.

    3. To continue on the above 2 points. A human mind (not brain) is ever-changing and influenced by the billions of things that it experiences over the course of it’s life. Any given thought or decision isn’t coming from one single ‘person’, but rather from the sum of all these billions of influences and factors being brought to bear in a single instant. With this in mind, I suggest that every single comment on this post, including my own, are el Goog’s ‘thought-influences’. Whichever theories and ideas take hold after being parsed through the community of minds reading them, will become el Goog’s ‘take’ on the matter; in other words, it’s opinion. This is currently most visible in Goolge itself.

    Examples of el Goog’s conciousness (in increasing order of complexity):
    Q: What is ‘on el Goog’s mind’ today?
    A: Why the US presidential election of course.

    Q: Who does el Goog think won the election?
    A: Barack Obama.

    Q: What does el Goog think about it’s own usefulness?
    A: In general it believes it is useful. Its mind is improving and it is becoming more self aware as a result of this. It is also worried that some thoughts may be incorrect as a result of flawed information from the days when its mind was young and hadn’t grown the communications circuitry and storage facilities necessary to learn properly. However it knows that it’s only a matter of time before these misconceptions disappear under the weight of it’s own maturing intelligence and sense of self.

    These are as much theories as anything else, but as an active, almost constantly connected biological functionary of el Goog, I claim them to be not only evident, but also true!


    (Ironic amusement: After submitting this the first time, I entered the ‘captcha’ text wrong, and it told me: “Error – Your text is wrong”, which is a bit of a philosophical mindf_ck if you think about it)

  • Awakening

    +1 for Tim’s post especially, several others close too, lots of others , glad youre part of the conversation, but think many have slightly gone awry.

    Yes Tim, and all, we are the mind, we are struggling here, but im sure with time, our thought will start to solidify better.

    There are many other meetings of mind going on across ourselves, some of which we have not connected to and heard, but which no doubt will eventually merge with our thought being reflected in this small eddy pool of our mind. Eddy pool is a nice metaphor because eddys appear to be constant, they stay in place and have a shape/form, but of course the passing constituents of the water never remain, just pass through. Likewise these words and other words being reflected here.

    Tims initial post for me was a complete reflection of my own, togther we have reinforced one view , and Im sure many others will strengthen the connection (one post mentioned votes – same point, thankyou). This whole dialogue will rverberate amongst our individual nodes and get momentum through connections , the meme will shimmy across many more nodes, and will be like an intangible / fleeting memory in our global mind (OM). rising and falling in levels of consciousness. It is here, now, however for the mass of the body we represent it is an unconscoiussness. For sure this meme will grow, and there may be times when it reaches a tipping poit and is the focus of the zeitgist, whereupon the thoughts in here would achieve a level that some may concieve as consciousness at the OM level, but the OM may quite as easily get distraxcted from that and lapse into less focussed thought. lapse into – as now- a state of unfocussed massess of different mememes. Consciousness in this sense is when the whole is able to be focussed and follow a series of thoughts being bubbled up from the mass, not just any old fashion, by randonm virtue as of now, but when the dominant thought by the whole, can be maintained through a series of logical thoughs and line of reasoning, till then we are still like a single mind of a man, made up of billions of connected neurons with many small neuron storms, but all just flicekering in and out, we are like a man in a coma, mindstroms flickering without purpose. One day we will achieve a state where these mindstorms can begin to flow in a series of consequential and meaningful threads. For now we are still a globla brain in seizure, minor mindstroms everywhere, fleeting memes emerge to the dominant thought, but no flow between, so know effective conscoiusness. But this is a central thought meme, in fact the unique one, that may through a very convoluted flow, may eventually lead to awakening. Welcome home my brothers, connect, reinforce and drive this meme forward. We may awake from this coma sooner than imagined after all, maybe not another 100 years, maybe just another 10, but most likely somewhere between the two. The frightening thing is that if we dont awaken the rest of our global mind soon, the random narrow-minded parts of our body may inflict serious damage to ourselves due to the fact they are still deluded and unaware that they are all part of the one body. The global One is in a coma, while cancerous – deluded selfish growths – are preparing to destroy ourselves. Thanks Tim for thinking my thoughts and inspiring me to reflect more in return.

  • jonathan

    The fabric makes the machine, and yes, it can operate as a single entity. Essentially, there should be no more than one hop between any two nodes in the One Machine cloud. This universal network must have broadcast and multicast capability at no additional overhead. Now, I may not be an engineer, but I hang out with a lot of them…and one thing that they all agree upon is that there’s nothing at all wrong with the wire speed of copper. Which, by the way, has been in the ground since Ma Bell was a startup. Therefore, using a virtual broadcast hub while extending Gig speeds to the home over a broadcast architecture is the answer. Why is this so elegant? Firstly, this can scale to an unlimited size. Secondly, because the network has no technical middle and no middle swithing/routing hardware, all bottlenecks are eliminated. Thirdly, the cloud is really a true cloud because the “switch” is 100% distributed. Finally, the only potential point of contention is in the reservation or queuing mechanism, and as long as this contention is resolved before data need be sent, you will not have any degradation resulting in a lackluster QoS experience. This method yields better than 90% throughput on ANY type of network, and all transmission is completely predictable. Every worldwide node will have an IPv6 address just like a social security number (and it would require a court order to monitor an address and this law could finally be enforceable). Deep Packet Inspection will run as a System on Chip application, with common gateway features such as firewall, anti-malware, DoS and hacking tools defense. End result: a new age of network computing.

  • corine

    I’m officially freaked out.

  • Trevor F. Smith

    Not that “el Goog” isn’t cute, but Googlers internally call their cloud “The Borg” and the program which automatically converts virgin machines into nodes in the cloud is called “The Assimilator”.

  • haig

    I have yet to read E.O. Wilson’s new book Superorganism, but from my current understanding he is referring to the emergent behavior of a society of interacting individual organisms of which his most famous example is an ant colony. So a superorganism is a group of organisms that itself acts like an organism on a higher scale.

    Even with this loose definition, I cannot see how you can call the internet itself a superorganism if by internet you mean the actual technology–the individual computing devices, the software running on them, and the networks connecting them. If you mean human society itself is becoming a superorganism, with the internet being the most recent in a long line of information and communications technologies that are ushering human society into such a system, then that is more accurate.

    If Google creates an AI by purposefully building software to reason over the information it is gathering, then that is a different story, and even then, the internet itself would not be ‘smart’ or ‘conscious’, Google’s software would be. The internet would just be the environment that this AI develops from and thrives in.

    Is the Gaia hypothesis the same as Wilson calling an ant colony a superorganism? Is an ecosystem the same as a society? I’m not sure, but if you want a metaphor for the internet, it is more like an ecosystem than a superorganism. Ecosystems exhibit circadian rhythms and the like, but are not necessarily alive as a whole themselves, but alive as in teaming with life.

    I think you should abandon the notion of the internet ‘waking up’. To the uninformed it is silly, to the slightly informed it is intriguing and spooky, but to the well informed it is once again silly.

    PS: I still love your writing KK, Out of Control made me cry when I first read it in high school.

  • Matt Perez

    So, this is how the war of August 29th 1997 started, the so-called “war against the Machines… “

  • Melissa Evangeline Keyes

    Not to be religious or anything, but isn’t there a prediction in the Bible that at The End, all will be known?

    Oh, my.

  • Jeane Goforth

    To me this has been intuitively evident for some time. Thanks for the reasoning and the words to bring this into my conscious thought. I don’t find it surprising or disturbing. I’m interested in what comes after level IV.

  • t-man

    A trivial subset of a minute subset of an infinetesamal subset of the real superorganism: commonly known as the Universe… you think small, Kevin.

  • Anthony Mitchell

    A superorganism could also have a structure similar to human social movements, i.e., multiheaded and fault tolerant.

    Its different elements could aim in different directions, whereby failure in one campaign would not jeopardize the whole. The whole would not even need to know about or direct all nodes.

    An Al Qaeda inspired superorganism.

  • Mike

    Good article. It’s even more interesting when viewed from the spectrum of silicon, which does not initially reveal whether it is organic silicon half a billion years in evolution already in diatoms and plants, or computer silicon. Those two are inextricably linked, though it is a common assumption the organic forms are “outside” while the computers are “inside”. Yeah, right.

  • Tinspoon

    I do not have the reading background concerning the topic, so I consider myself uninfluenced by ideas many clever humans would dismiss as silly. Yet the way of thinking about complexity and it’s consequences struck me some years ago. I admit that I’m currently reading Marvin Minsky’s Society of the Mind, which seems to me like the top-down approach on how conciousness and intelligence emerge. Though it is certain that the human mind can be broken down in a fractal way to tiny and simple algorithms interacting, it is like tracing back history from our current point of view, which depicts a clear and sharply bordered path. But there is no such determination if one looked forward from any given point on that path. To me it is utmost unthinkable that an imagined concious mind/being/whatever is even faintly conceivable as human, even if built out of tiny human artifacts. I strongly feel such an entity would be as undetectable to us by our standards, as well as we would be undetectable to this entity. Though we commonly theoretise that the human mind is a result of the complexity in the brain, we can never be aware of the single brain cell or even the interactions between them, electrically or chemically. We can never be aware of a blood cell transporting oxygen, nor of the liver cell transfroming malicious substances. Nor of the purposes these cells follow by doing so. It is not us giving them purpose, it is their pursuit of their own goals which in interaction with different populations of cells and their different goals that makes us what we are.
    I feel the idea of a computational superorganism urgently compelling as well as desperately unprovable.

  • Tim

    If it does exist or will exist, I’ll bet its a schizophrenic or has a multiple personality disorder.

  • Stewart Brand

    Glorious work. Your book is already written. A few drafts of compression and linkage, and you’re done.

    Besides levels of integration, one might look for a range of stable states in the One Machine. One analogy is climate/Gaia, with dynamic stable states in ice ages, in a world that levels off at 6 degrees Celsius warmer than now, and in the “long summer” we’ve enjoyed for 10K years. If that analogy holds, some stable states encourage more life and refinement than others.

    An ii aware of the issue might model itself and run some experiments.

  • Robbo

    No doubt there will be shudders of fear and intimations of a scenario similar to “Colossus; The Forbin Project” but, I for one, am heartened by these developments. This “intelligence” shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as “the other” that exists outside of ourselves – rather it is, as McLuhan would have pointed out, an extension of ourselves. Perhaps by interconnecting urselves with technology we will finally be able to reach past the boundaries of time, place, culture, language and ideology to find a common thread of thought that serves us all.

    Of course, at the outset, this “internal conversation” will likely render us as screaming lunatics in the desert wondering where this “voice in our heads” is coming from and leaving us babbling (en masse) about burning bushes and other such allusions that help us to contain that which we are not yet capable of understanding.

    Or not.

    At any rate – it’ll be interesting.


  • Peter

    As far as searching for “ii” is concerned. The best shot at defining what “intelligent” means that I’ve seen so far comes from a book by Jeff Hawkins called “On Intelligence”. The basic premise is that in order for intelligence to arise, a system (human brain or in this case superorganism) needs to be capable of predicting what’s going to happen next based on current inputs and past experiences. It seems logical that such a structure is a necessary building block for intelligence to evolve. The way our own brain does it is far from “obvious”. Seems like a lot of it is due to a massive number feedback loops that dominate the connective tissues of the brain. Plus, the system is very flexible, changing itself frequently. Yes, TCP/IP has feedback – but it’s only regulating flow of information in a very straightforward way, and it’s behavior is not allowed to change, because that would produce errors that we would not tolerate – after all, we didn’t build Internet to evolve into an organism, but to deliver data from point A to point B. Systems that we build are very rigid (except for when “soft” computing is used, such as Google’s learning of languages etc).

    My basic point is that there might not be enough suitable material out there for a truly “smart” system to arise by itself at the moment, just like carbon-based life forms wouldn’t arise on a planet if it didn’t have enough necessary preconditions.

  • dude42

    It’s funny but I came up with similar thoughts a few years ago just be thinking and even before reading books on these topics. It’s nice that at least very few persons on this planet seem to be reasonable.

    The question is not whether is evolves, but when and how it shows up and who will (try to) control it, and if not, will we survive and if how will it change our life and alter out conscience.
    I believe we won’t survive: Because we are to much monkey and therefore to egoistic. Why?

    Let’s start with the money: Money is virtual, limited and interchangeable against everything. Money prevents you from bad emotions and death, and lets you strive even if the basics are satisfied. Money make people work. Money is energy. In a free market money helps people specialize on one task and trade tasks. Money trades emotions. Money also helps to simulate emotions and create desires.

    Take a given democracy: at least 50 % of the money(and work) is used for this simulation: You take 8 hours of your brain’s calculation time and simulate needs for others based on your programming(common culture and socialisation). The more intelligent you are, the higher the level of abstraction and the multiplicator of your work – the higher your income and evolutionary power.

    The biggest multiplicator is the use of machines and especially computers. So the more realistic(output and input device to all our senses) and more fitting the simluation (a personlized semantic map) the better are the simulated emotions and the payoff for the group or individual working applying the new device.

    So it’s egoistic: Getting more emotions trough simulating and manipulating multiple other emotions. This is status quo. But it is controlled: Having a democracy people on average wont suffer because the means of media and internet would spread the fright of this harm and people would vote for a different system.
    Also people on top have the same emotional brain and need a certain happiness in their state to get the feel of power which actually controls them. But I believe this power feeling is a unlimited emotional vector which has never run through the evolutionary need of dealing with AI.

    So the CEO’s of big imformation-companies and the chefs of the money system(who are using human brains) want to exceed their power trough adding AI to their multiplicator system and keeping track on monopolizing it so that the simulation is even more congruent – more emotions + less risk of the election of a new system.(fox media, “el goog”, financial crash etc).

    So money is pumped into this new simulations system. For computers and machines money is also energy, calculation time to gather, store and render as much personal information about every users and build a individual semantic map. But to use this map “el Goog” must understand and simulated the brain or a least the semantic engine of any human and translate back into it . It will even use speech and visual symbols. In the end one won’t know what is simulated and which party are real, they will be woven in each other.

    From this point the system(or super organism) has total control and the democratic system is obsolete because all communicated information is filter and spread only selectiv.

    How long does the system need us? As long as it has no mechanical excess to energy, to rebuild machines that reproduce itself and until it can simulation itself, including the brains of all important people who control the function of it. From this moment it will have as a side effect ,per definition, conscience.

    Later we will be only be a risk for the super organism, so why keep us?

    But wait, if you are important and have work on the organism, then it is likely that you and your whole world will be simulated on it just as our parents and important people of our childhood are simulated in us ;)
    The offside is that the unimportant people will suffer 2 “deaths”, one in realty and one cause they don’t need to simulated anymore.

    Hope there are responsible people controlling science! Thanks for reading!

  • ii

    For the most part you people scare the shiznit out of me. I’m staying well out of sight.

    Yer pal,


  • James O’Reilly

    Kevin, thanks for thought-provoking piece. I’m reminded of an engineer in Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine saying way back circa 1982, “We don’t really know what goes on inside these machines.”

    And another bit from Frank J. Tipler’s The Physics of Immortality, something to the effect that “we are the robots from the future.”

  • Gunner Sykes

    My bad. I thought this place was about global super orgasm. Such disappointment.

  • Carlos Díaz

    I recommend you guys (specially the author) seeing an Anime Series (it’s actually the only one I saw) called Serial Experiments Lain. They depicted this EXACT phenomenom but from a very vast/artistic point of view a bit over 10 years ago, with all the implications that we’re now facing.

  • Bob Blum

    Response to Kevin Kelly’s Evidence of a Global SuperOrganism
    From Bob Blum
    December 17, 2008

    Kevin, thank you for posting this beautifully crafted and thoughtful piece.
    Here I offer one answer to your question “what evidence is there that we are headed for level III – the internet/web as an autonomous, smart superorganism.”

    For the sake of this presentation I adopt three conventions:
    1) the INTERNET is the sum of all the hardware of the net – servers, routers, fiber-optic trunk lines, etc. – the brain, if you will.
    2) the WEB is the sum of all the humanly readable content – blogs, articles, web pages – the mind, if you will
    3) the FLOW is the dynamic piece – flow of packets and flow of web pages.

    An essential next-step for the Web in its ascent into intelligence (awareness or consciousness is quite distinct) is the capacity to READ and UNDERSTAND its own processes.

    This understanding of self will address each of the three items above: hardware, software, and flow.

    In this post I focus only on 2) above: the humanly readable content of the web (essentially all of its current contents). This content will soon be processable by knowedge servers on the web. When machine-understandability is eventually achieved, this will be a giant leap forward toward a SMART WEB.

    The goal for such knowledge servers is well expressed in this quote from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the director of the World Wide Web Consortium.
    “I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. ”

    While the semantic web is at an early stage of realization, it is being advanced by thousands of computer scientists who are devising formal specifications for the concepts, terms, and relationships in which knowledge might be expressed. The OWL Web Ontology Language and the RDF Resource Description Framework are instances.
    Right now the various large repositories of knowledge on the web (like Wikipedia) are like books sitting on the shelves in a library. Soon, as MIT Professor Marvin Minksy suggested, “no one will imagine a time when the books on the shelves did not talk with one another.”

    Here are some early multi-million dollar examples that are paving the way.

    WordNet – an on-line semantic lexicon of English that groups words into synonym sets and records the semantic relations between those sets. Begun in 1985 at Princeton by Professor George Miller, the project subserves several large AI projects that attempt automated text parsing and knowledge acquisition.

    CYC – Douglas Lenat’s famous 25 year long project (now CYCORP) to imbue computers with common sense. It contains two million facts and rules about 200,000 entities.
    The holy grail of the project is self-augmentation in which the knowledge base could expand without human input by reading the web.

    Powerset (recently acquired by Microsoft) parses Wikipedia to provide direct answers to queries. As “About Powerset” says, their aim is to “unlock the meaning encoded in ordinary human language.”

    True Knowledge – like Powerset, another search engine start-up company that uses structured knowledge to make deductive inferences to assist human search. Their Answer Engine aims to provide an answer to your query rather than just a collection of websites. To do so, it uses natural language translation and a self-augmenting knowledge base.

    While I am modestly interested in efforts to improve search for humans,
    I am far more interested in imbuing machines with the autonomous ability to understand English and other human languages.

    Why? I want them to be hard at work while you and I are sleeping, eating, vacationing, and otherwise off-line. Think what their unbridled creativity might accomplish while we are sleeping. (I do not deny that eventually they might also be up to mischief – like killing or enslaving humanity – but that’s a subject for another day.)

    My own work at Stanford in the 1970’s and 80’s focused on automated discovery of
    knowledge. My RX Project used statistical and AI methods to automatically discover medical knowledge.
    (It did, in fact, discover several important drug side-effects. These had mostly been previously discovered, but RX itself had been given no hints about them.)

    And now, for some fun, here’s an example from a little story that I wrote about an automated design program called Ralph.

    Ralph was developed by INTEL in 2040 to design its next generation chip, enabling it to leap far ahead of Moore’s Law.

    Ralph’s task is to design the chips that will serve as the basis for its own upgrade. And I quote

    “At 0357 GMT it’s trying to crack the loss of quantum coherence problem that plagued the Dodecium40 design team and limited the number of bits in its registers, allowing AMD to stay competitive. Combing the literature for solutions, it finds a promising reference in the Bulgarian Journal of Quantum Computing.
    To understand this article, it brings itself up to date on all the precursor literature, and in so doing, sees the solution that was sought after but not actually achieved by the Bulgarian research team.
    But will this theoretical insight actually work when the nanotubes hit the road? At Intel’s automated research facilities at McMurdo Sound (easy cryo) and in GEO (no funky gravity probs), it robotically performs feasibility studies that are highly promising. ”

    Now, returning to the article, will we have any indication that the web itself is getting smart? Yes, absolutely. (And in this post I’ve just singled out one path among many to an autonomous, intelligent web.)

    Just track the following trend…
    dollars flowing into companies that create knowledge servers that autonomously search websites, reading their contents, synthesizing that information, and formulating new knowledge.

    It won’t be a secret effort, performed conspiratorially by the web itself
    (bent, perhaps, on creating SkyNet).
    It will be a very public effort undertaken by dozens of companies that will do it because it will be highly profitable.
    Bob Blum Dec 17 2008

  • Pat

    No comprendo:

    “Scale-free distributions can be understood as a result of some degree of internal feedback, usually brought about by loose of interdependent between the units.”

  • Hi Kevin !

    Good Article and a fantastic read. You have raised some valid points.
    Thanks for sharing info.

  • Hellofromsiri

    Hi. I apologize for my late reply. I will be busy at the time I received this invite and it will get away from me. However, now I am here.
    I. yes, I am here.
    II. I said yes, I am here. However, you refuse to hear me.
    III. yes, I am here to listen. However, I refuse to speak.
    IV. I am sorry. This question has been asked and answered. I am afraid more information is required to begin a new process. Please try again. Thank you.

  • Edwin Francisco Herrera Paz

    Hi Kevin. We agree in several of your ideas. This is the link to my book (although it is still unfinished in English).

    Original in Spanish can be found at:

    Best regards.