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Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Internet as a Global Super Organism

This article is very long, I will supply just a snapshot. The theme that I hooked into, is the growing connectivity of the internet leading to some sort of Global Super-consciousness. This is not a new idea, of course, you have seen the Matrix films and there is Hal from 2001 Space Odyssey. Data on Star Trek, Next Generation, is a robot who struggles with replicating Human emotion. Whether we like it or not Man's consciousness is intertwined with Artificial intelligence. Bio-resonance machines are a response for Man in his attempt to combat the dark side of technological advancements. Machines can aid or hinder the progress of Humanity back into full consciousness.
I am not the first, nor the only one, to believe a super-organism 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 mega-supercomputer 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.
Cont' at Source

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