Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wiring the Global Brain

We've been building a global brain for a good while now. From the moment we could grunt at each other, from the moment we could connect the global brain's neurons, we have been looking for ways of increasing and improving those connections. We consume connective opportunity like voracious beasts: cave art, semaphore, music, literature, mail, carrier pigeons, morse code, telegraph, telephone, internet. And now, we are all connected. This is the reality we face: we have formed the largest possible global brain, and strange things are afoot. No longer does it get better by getting bigger. Now it must get better by getting smarter, by getting wiser.

Internet Connectivity Map
Perhaps if we knew what we were trying to achieve - why we consume connectivity like a junkie consumes heroin - we might be able to help, or hinder, depending on our determination. What is the goal of a brain? Perhaps it is as mundane as maximising the survival chances of the host organism. Perhaps not. One thing is clear: the most awe inspiring elements of our humanity transcend the function of a single human brain. Culture. Morality. Knowledge. Each of these somewhat indistinguishable from the other, a constantly evolving result of endless feedback and filtering over time. What we hold today in our minds is a refinement of that which was held in countless minds before us - minds that have long since turned to dust. Each of us a unique component of a collective that delivers something far greater than the sum of the parts.  Perhaps we consume connectivity because we know this inherently: that each connection delivers more than the sum of the end points, and more connections delivers more than the sum of those connections.

Unlike our brains, the global brain transcends time, at least as we know it. The cells of 100 years ago aren't present today, yet there are more cells than ever before, each shaped by those that came before. Perhaps this is why we consume connectivity with so much passion: immortality. The insignificant speck of our existence has meaning in the immortal knowledge of the global brain. What drives us is exactly what the global brain needs. Or is it the other way round?

A human, we are told, will have the greatest number of brain cells at age 3. After that, they die faster than they are created. With human population growth clearly still skyrocketing, perhaps we could say the global brain, in human terms is less than 3 years old. This may not be a silly as it sounds - when we look at the nature of our global brain, the page does seem blank: the connections transient, firing off half-cocked; barely recognising right from wrong; trying to understand the nature of the environment in which they exist; trying to undertand their own nature - trying to build an operating system. Revelation is the norm, and certainty non-existent. Surely Farmville is not the pinacle of global neurological evolution. There is no doubt that as youths, there is the external perception of a blank page, that we could be anything. Yet, as time goes on, the story is written, and the possibilities diminish. Our global brain is a young, unformed child - yet, for the first time, fully connected. What will be its story? It might be said that our global brain has reached a stage where it needs to start using its wiring more effectively, and unless we plan to switch off the internet, it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to give it a hand, to deliver a few revelations, a few Eureka moments that will stand it in good stead for the future.

Easier said than done. Perhaps we can start by asking whether our global brain is the only one around.  Are we the constituents of a one-off freak? Where should we look for others? Cats? Dogs? Mice? Trees? Dolphins, whales, cephalopods? Maybe all of those places, but let's take whales and dolphins. Perhaps they have a sonar internet - a distributed, wireless communication system. Cool stuff, but different to ours - it's not directed - dedicated links to specific individuals over long distances are not possible. It's a broadcast system, and anyone can listen in. They've had theirs for much longer than us, and seem to be pretty settled as far technological advancement goes. Perhaps their global brain is more mature. We can look elsewhere: how about about birds or fish?  They're all pretty bizarre, but there's no doubt ours is uniquely human.

The next thing to consider: what's the point? What does our global brain want to be when it grows up? At this age? Probably a fireman, a doctor, or a ballerina. Certainly not a mechanical engineer, abstract sculptor or neurosurgeon. It's young: looking for some support, some guidance, some nurturing. Sadly, our brain is on its own - it must look to itself for guidance. That's us. And if we are to fill this role, then, as always, we must find the balance between authority, and freedom for the brain to experiment and forge its own path, to make its own mistakes. Man that's weird - a brain being brought up by its own cells. Which are themselves brains. Stranger things there may be, but I wouldn't bet on it.

So then, let's take a stab at it. The global brain is designed for the creation, filtering and preservation of knowledge. The end-goal no clearer than our own. We know how to create, and we know how to preserve - do we know how to filter? What passes through, what is rejected, what is distilled, and to what end?

The strangest thing is that the filter itself is constructed entirely from that which it preserves - the filter for knowledge is knowledge. An endless feedback loop - its job: to build a better filter. We don't know why - we just know how to apply the filter. The brain seeks enlightenment; perfect knowledge; truth. It has no idea what that actually means, for it seeks not only the answer, but also the question. Luckily we have an apparatus designed to solve the problem - a global brain. As Sherlock Holmes said - '...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'  The perfect filter delivers perfect knowledge, but when the filter itself is knowledge, how do you get the perfect filter? Very zen.

To this point we have seen us humans as neurons in the global brain, zealously forming connections with each other - some weak, some strong, always changing. When looking at our own brains, we have discovered the existence of neural ensembles - collections of neurons which work together:

Neuronal ensembles encode information in a way somewhat similar to the principle of Wikipedia operation - multiple edits by many participants. Neuroscientists have discovered that individual neurons are very noisy. For example, by examining the activity of only a single neuron in the visual cortex, it is very difficult to reconstruct the visual scene that the owner of the brain is looking at. Like a single Wikipedia participant, an individual neuron does not 'know' everything and is likely to make mistakes. This problem is solved by the brain having billions of neurons. Information processing by the brain is population processing, and it is also distributed - in many cases each neuron knows a little bit about everything, and the more neurons participate in a job, the more precise the information encoding. In the distributed processing scheme, individual neurons may exhibit neuronal noise, but the population as a whole averages this noise out.
An alternative to the ensemble hypothesis is the theory that there exist highly specialized neurons that serve as the mechanism of neuronal encoding. In the visual system, such cells are often referred to as grandmother cells because they would respond in very specific circumstances--such as when a person gazes at a photo of their grandmother. Neuroscientists have indeed found that some neurons provide better information than the others, and a population of such expert neurons has an improved signal to noise ratio. However, the basic principle of ensemble encoding holds: large neuronal populations do better than single neurons. [Wikpedia]

As neurons in the global brain, it would seem that our myriad social groups fill such a role - indeed, the aptness of the analogy is a little disconcerting. We form groups to improve the signal to noise ratio, and groups of experts do an even better job. Here we see another reason why we are so ardent in our connective consumption: improving the quality of the filtering process. From this we might deduce that the filter of our global brain is in fact a mass of more specific filters acting together to deliver the whole. At the finest detail, an individual neuron is a filter, and at the coarsest the entire connected mass is a filter.  A brain is a fractal knowledge filter.

Better groups is a better filter, and a better filter is a better brain. If we look at our presence online, we see a huge number of groups of all shapes and sizes, constantly strengthening and weakening their connections. It seems that if we want to help out our global brain, then improving its capacity to form groups of neurons to achieve specific goals would be high on our list, and if we could organise those groups such that they consisted of experts, the results would be significantly better. If we could organise those groups such that they worked in concert, then we're heading for the jackpot. No wonder that stack overflow works so well, and no wonder those guys are developing a process for replicating that success. The global brain likes. There's something else happening here: most of these neurons - us humans - belong to many groups,  and in many cases are specialists in multiple fields and groups. In fact, we're pretty free to espouse our expertise wherever we see fit.

So the global brain is a knowledge management machine endlessly filtering its own output to produce a better process for endlessly filtering its own output. Etcetera. If we want to improve the wiring of the global brain, then we need to facilitate better groups. Which is, of course, what we have been doing since we first grunted at the next guy.