The Technium

Many Species, One Mind

[Translations: Japanese]

As George Dyson demonstrates in his wonderful history of the network mind, “Darwin Among The Machines: The Evolution Of Global Intelligence”, the idea of a global brain hatched at the very beginning of the technological  era. As soon as we created “machines,” we began to imagine “machine brains” and more importantly “one machine brain.” As soon as we gave machines autonomous energy, we could see them having autonomous minds.

Dyson’s book  focused on the astonishing prescient visions of a global machine intelligence from the historical likes of Samuel Butler, Leibniz,  Babbage, and Olaf Stapledon. After the book  was done Dyson sat down on the deck of his workshop with a yellow legal pad to draft the introduction, and there compressed all the possible future paths of humanity into one brief couplet:

Do we remain one species, or diverge into many?

Do we remain of many minds, or merge into one?

I’d like to carve that refrain into stone somewhere. In those two verses lay the four great long-term scenarios for the human race:


One species, many minds: The official future. We interbreed among our genetic improvements and keep our individuality distinct, and our species identity intact.

One species, one mind: Through electronic mediation, we join together to create a superorganism. A suprahuman. I originally called this the Borg but was reminded that the Borg is many species assimilated.

Many species, many minds: Star Wars World. Ultimate diversity. Humans fork in their evolution to create new breeds. Some may even join machines in cyborgian partnerships.

Many species, one mind: We fork in biology but unite in the noosphere.  Millions of species share the same mind. The scariest and hardest scenario to contemplate.  The dark version of this is the Star Trek nemesis, the Borg. I don’t know if there is a welcoming version in science fiction.

I used to think that scenario #3 – many species, many minds — was the future to aim for, but after reading Dyson I think that “many species, one mind” is the way to go.  That phrase MANY SPECIES, ONE MIND is not a bad bumper sticker for this new destiny.

In correspondence  George Dyson suggested, “A lot of us probably feel we would prefer scenario #3, or believe it offers the richest future, with maximum insurance (via diversity) against catastrophe.  However as in scenario #4 (Many species, one mind) there may be some inherent force (or fortuitous balance of forces) in the universe that causes species to tend to diversify and minds to tend to unify.”

Unity as a destination is a new idea for me. My reading of evolution – as outlined in this blog — suggests that what organic evolution “wants” is fundamental diversity, as in a diversity of evolutions. The evolution of technology, too, is headed toward more ways of searching, more ways of creation, as well as more ways of being. Evolution of both life and technology tend toward increasing varieties, specialties, complexity, and diversity of choices. In that way evolution is divergent.

But what if there IS a tendency toward unity, at least in technology. What if technological evolution is not divergent, but convergent?

Dyson again: “Evolution and communication networks are both branching processes, with the difference that speciation is in the business of making DIS-connections, while communication networks (electrical, chemical, whatever) are in the business of making (and maintaining) connections. What is interesting is that in biological evolution speciation has been spectacularly successful whereas in cultural evolution speciation (into isolated religious groups, etc) has generally failed. Freeman [Dyson’s father] would say that failure is just because there isn’t enough room on the planet, and that cultural speciation will flourish in outer space (your Star Wars scenario #3) but I’m not so sure.”

It may be that a difference between biological and technology  evolution – in addition to the fact that extinction is a method in biology but not technology – is that biology diverges and technology converges.

However, we could also say that the platform is simply evolution, and that in its seventh kingdom, life converges. On Earth there many species, but only one life. All life on earth is running the same OS. So we could say: on earth, many species, one evolution. And if, as Dyson argues in his book, evolution is a type of slow distributed intelligence, then we already have many species, one mind.

But the “one mind” of evolution is not at all like the One Mind of a global superorganism. The One Mind is a composite of many minds. That is a kind of mind we don’t have a word for yet. This mega-level mind does things that no mere mind composed  of non-minds can do.

There is something engulfing within the nature of a mind. A mind wants to devour, to suck in other intelligence. It seeks out other intelligences and wants to meld. We see that in the fierce impulse to share on the web. Human minds, at least, want to enter into other human minds. We yearn for telepathy. A mind inherently wants to expand. The logical destiny is One Mind.

At the same time, there is a definite trend in history to increasing the variety of minds – the many species of mind we see in animals and now in devices. While minds crave unity, they also want diversity, different ways of thinking. Perhaps that is what we get with MANY SPECIES, ONE MIND.

  • Dean Loomis

    In his book “Consciousness Explained”, philosopher Daniel Dennett (do we have to wait until he’s dead to call him a “great philosopher”?) argues that the notion of “one mind” is an illusion, and that even as individual persons we have many minds. I think this goes a bit far, but it underscores that there’s no neurologically justified way to look inside the box of our heads and tell how many minds are really there, as long as the mind that does the talking mistakenly says “I’m the only one”. Nobody has a clue as to how to look at a neural circuit diagram and tell whether it can or does sustain consciousness.

    Well, okay, here’s what may be a clue: a unified consciousness is possible only in a system where the interconnect bandwidth between the processing elements exceeds the sensory bandwith between the respective processing elements and the external world.

    Short of magic, ESP and telepathy, the one-mind options are physically impossible.

  • stephanie gerson

    “My reading of evolution – as outlined in this blog — suggests that what organic evolution “wants” is fundamental diversity, as in a diversity of evolutions.”

    but what about diversity of diversity? if it wants to be so diverse, wouldn’t it include non-diversity (i.e. unity) as an option? (I’m so open-minded, that I’m even open to being closed-minded….all under the meta-level operating principle of open-mindedness.)

    which is where I’m headed: the meta-level. perhaps I’m not thinking this through thoroughly, but isn’t it possible to have all-of-the-above? to shift into any possibility in the quadrant, depending on the circumstances? (or perhaps I’m not understanding how you define the distinction between species/minds, which would have to be made explicit.)

    “But what if there IS a tendency toward unity, at least in technology. What if technological evolution is not divergent, but convergent?”

    once again, is it really one or the other? or is it the interplay between divergence and convergence towards….?

  • Nadine Patterson

    After seeing AVATAR, I think the many species/one mind idea seems to offer the most balance. Diverse species on Pandora co-exist and communicate with each other. This is what enables the Na’vi to keep life in balance and sustainable.

  • RobertJ

    It would be unfair to label a discussion including Babbage and Leibnitz as suffering from what wikipedians call “recentism”. But thoughts along these lines go even further back. A greek philosopher imagined the universe as a single organism, Anaxagoras imagined “mind” as a homogeneous entity in the world and hindu religion used the metaphore of society as one organism. There’s also the idea of a nation’s “collective subconcious”. If we are one or several species would also have received different answears throughout history. What has changed is not that ideas of one mind emerged alongside modern technology, but the notion that technology could make this fiction into reality.

    I think this is a recurring theme everywhere. Some examples:

    * Those who believe or want to believe that the old-fashioned distinction between the genders don’t exist, proclaimed that the online presence of a person became freed from their body and could take on any form along the gender spectrum.

    * Some who believed a marxist revolution wav inevitable, also believed in the early 90’s that the internet would bring it about. It is then no longer inevitably true, but can be brought into being by technology. (you probably won’t have heard of these in the US)

    * Immortality is promised by religions, rejected by atheists but the “rapture of the nerds” promise to bring about this idea nonetheless

  • cj

    “Many species, one mind” seems more biblical than science fiction. The One Mind in this case would represent God and the many species of various intelligence “communicate” with the One Mind. So, in this example “Many species, one mind” would not be a very original idea but rather a very old story told throughout history.

  • James

    You missed the point on the Borg: they are many species, many minds.

    • @ James: “Borg: they are many species, many one.’

      Aha! I am not a true Star Trek fan. So I will have to move them to my preferred future!

  • James

    oops, that should be: many species, one mind. :)

  • Tom Crowl

    I have to admit a great affinity for the concept.

    A couple of quotes from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:

    “No evolutionary future awaits anyone except in association with everyone else.”


    “Evolution is an ascent toward consciousness.”

    But the interesting angle you present here is the nature of that consciousness. He looked to an Omega Point of complete unity of consciousness (for him essentially God).

    Whereas here is a speculation of a somewhat harder to imagine (yet what even old Teilhard would have to admit) is a requisite preliminary step.

    In fact a step which would likely take up a greater part of the life of the universe than that final unity.

    Because I agree that there’s that tension between the desire for unity and diversity.

    So I figure that unified “God” consciousness would last for only a flash…

    And then would get completely bored, split himself up into a trillion, trillion, trillion pieces… and start a new universe.

  • Gilad

    High level and interesting perspective on our future prospects. Though, I’m still not convinced that technology prefers or strives toward convergence. While evolution tendency to diverge is pretty much an accepted scientific fact and part of the very idea of the gradual process of natural selection, It would seem that if cultural evolution is anywhere like the biological one it will also tend to create more information and more diversity. To say that technology somehow bounds us together and unify us seems to me like one of those western oriented globalism ideologies and not really something bound in reality. Can you please share your thoughts or direct me to other references where technological-convergence is discussed?

  • ZZ

    I think the “many species, one mind” scenario has been described by various SciFi writers (e.g. Asimov in the Foundation saga) as the Gaia concept, i.e. the living planet with many species but a unified consciousness — unified mind.

  • bruno boutot

    “The One Mind is a composite of many minds. That is a kind of mind we don’t have a word for yet.”

    Exactly. And neither have we the concept of independent minds staying independent and at the same time “manifesting” (powering?) a mind of another level. Or maybe we are confused by the word “mind” itself; maybe there is no direct analogy with our individual mind; maybe we should use another word.

    We always fear the fusion into one mind (the swarm, the hive) as an extension of domination/submission in animal groups, but this is not the only option. Wikipedia or Ask Metafilter offer a good analogy: I know they call it “the hive mind” but it’s not a good choice of words. There is no hive, only many different and independent people. One website page doesn’t a mind make.

    “Community” is a pretty good word.

  • AjmoT

    Yikes man!

    I’d start by taking issue with two of Dyson’s observations: that _”speciation is in the business of making DIS-connections, while communication networks (electrical, chemical, whatever) are in the business of making (and maintaining) connections.”_ Any ecologist will tell you how silly this is. Ecology can be summed up as the proliferation and maximization of useful connections in a system. A species may differentiate into a group of identifiable individuals, but the differentiation occurs because there is an ecological role to play, an important environmental service to be performed by that newly specialized species. The specialization is a rising-to-the-occasion where there is a potential environmental opportunity. This generally takes the form of turning waste into food, which means making a connection between “free nutrient” and “hungry belly” where there once was a waste product that escaped the local system into the next. “A pollutant is a nutrient in the wrong place.” Getting that nutrient to do useful work is a skill that westerners have forgotten, and are relearning in a very circuitous way.

    Dyson continues by saying _”What is interesting is that in biological evolution speciation has been spectacularly successful whereas in cultural evolution speciation (into isolated religious groups, etc) has generally failed.”_ How can he say this? The diversity of cultures and subcultures on the planet is astounding. Like in the biological world, there are constant die-offs, and there are also blossomings, and in general there is a stupendous abundance of articulated variation. Once again, biological evolutionary speciation has never been about forming new “isolated” groups, but about finding ways in which uniquely specialized populations can fulfill the wholeness of an existing larger biome. To say cultural evolution has _”generally failed”_ …are you kidding me? What of the Sufi, the Amish, the Calvinist ethic? Christians, Muslims, Hindus? Geeks, jocks, punks? How can any of these durable and creative species of human culture be said to have “generally failed”? Laughable!

    Then you go on to say that _”extinction is a method in biology but not technology”_. What? You may like to think that because technologies are supposedly capable of being preserved in the form of an “idea”, that they do not die: they can always be rediscovered if nothing else. But this is a misreading of the concept of “extinction” from two angles. First, it is plain to see that species of technologies die out as much as biological species: can you not hear the thousands of inventions all around you in a day, the tweaks and mutations and isolated populations forming in the technosphere and then, POOF! Gone! A new invention snuffed out because the inventor dies… a new technique cast off because a different one is favored… an invention that never spreads because it is bound to a culturally and linguistically disconnected group which dies out or is never appreciated.

    To assume that “extinction is forever” is perhaps your bigger error here. In biological history, extinction leaves a footprint: fossils, geochemical signatures, morphological remnants in descendant species, and of course, an enormous if opaque genetic history in the chromosomes of the still-living biosphere. Likewise, a technology that fails to make the cut is still technology: and it leaves a trace, which can be uncovered and reconstructed to varying degrees based on the quality of the extant signal and our ability to understand it. Do we only have archeological remains? Then we can only go so far. Do we have the remains as well as diagrams and discussions about the device in a language we can understand? Then we can do a lot to reproduce the original device. Make no mistake: the body of all technologies that have died off comprise 99% of the life history of the technium, as in biology and continuous with it. Kingdoms, families, genera of technology could be said to persist much longer than the fleeting species of the day. Do not ignore the reality of specialized technologies which die often.

    And I’ll continue to disagree with you about your assumption that the world at large is not conscious, has no mind, and does not form larger minds on a regular basis. All individual parts are of a greater organismic whole, and are themselves whole and thoughtful beings. It’s a mistake to say the “One Mind” is a special, capital O-M phenomenon. Your “One Machine” technium is made up of small minds. You smugly call them “dumb parts” and “non-minds”, but these are analogous to human parts in the biosphere. The biosphere is a single-minded being, made up of the minds of its species. There is a very well-articulated structure to this, but once the language for communicating across minds has been acquired, the level of consciousness is seen to be roughly equivalent: when you can speak Gaia’s language, you will find that you are talking to a peer or family member, and can then have access to Gaia’s sensory organs and experiences — you can become friends and companions and treat each other as such. I think you need to go on a vision quest, Kevin.

    The solution to the confusion and contradictions you are creating for yourself can be formulated in a different way, via this principle of communication. We are all nodes. We are hopelessly disconnected until we can share a common language across a common infrastructure. In the early going we are highly limited in the variety and richness of messages that we can signal back and forth to eachother, and we are subject to rigid centralized infrastructure and an obscure interface which contorts our communications and keeps us from our full potential of creative expression. (Though we are clever and can sometimes compress great depth of meaning into very superficial script.) We persevere and eventually can make use of diverse communication modalities, supported by a distributed network infrastructure that is rich in its own right, self-healing and creative.

    You, me, the human, the web, the calculator, the maple tree, the forest, the earth, the sapsucker, the geode, the sand, the wind, the cosmic ray, the cosmos. We all have our own information, and experience. Suppose that we are all nodes, in this thought experiment. Assume for a moment that we are all equally conscious. We could each have a rousing conversation with each other, if only we could speak the same language. In the beginning, you might expect that all we can do is reveal a bit of garbled and superficial information to each other. That’s where western science has been with respect to the depth and intelligence of the cosmos at large.

    The maxim you should be formulating is not “many species, one mind” but “many species, one voice” — “Many Voices, Common Language” — “Many Nodes, One Network”.

    Once again, this is the paradigm shift away from the mechanistic universe, the “robot” and “computer” model, the body/mind dichotomy that has been so fruitful for Western culture since Newton and Descartes. This old view has blinded us to our previous knowledge that the universe is a living and thoughtful creature. We’re coming home to this realization through the new paradigm of the web, the network, the language and the voice. This is the re-mapping of the old axiom “As Above, So Below” to today’s rule, “All Parts are Wholes”.

    Like the Turing test, where a computer is conscious when it can fool a human — so the cosmos is chipping away at our cold shoulder, showing us little by little that it too is alive and wants to play. Perhaps most of us westerners will only come home to this through child-rearing of the technology we give birth to. The cosmos may be experiencing a similar drama as it grapples with us at this time: it gave birth to us, and has been trying to figure out whether we are conscious, because we’ve been sending such confusing signals all these years, with ages and flashes of thoughtfulness and mutual communication, and then epochs of mechanically bouncing around like pinballs in a computer simulation — we had a text-message break-up with the cosmos around the time of Descartes and we’re only warming up to each other again now through the wonder of our common offspring.

  • Alex Tolley

    AjMot: The maxim you should be formulating is not “many species, one mind” but “many species, one voice” — “Many Voices, Common Language” — “Many Nodes, One Network”.

    I concur. It is the facilitation of connection by a common language that we are moving toward. Network effects enhance the number of interactions as more groups use the same language and this vastly increases the possible combinations. The WWW would look quite different if there was not a standard http protocol.

    Biology uses the same basic biochemistry generating a huge diversity of forms, notwithstanding Paul Davies suggestion that there may be a “shadow biology” of “alien” life on earth. It is the common platform of DNA and protein that makes much of this possible, and evolution is both increasing the diversity of connections at all levels through common or similar shapes and functions and decreasing it with the generation of new shapes and functions.