We’re All In This Together

(Originally posted 28th March, 2007)

The late Douglas Adams, in his classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, joked that the Earth was really just a giant computer that was crunching through the numbers to try to come up with the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Had it not been destroyed by the Vogons, it would have come up with it as well.

People have often talked about the “global consciousness”, as a sort of buzzword for a larger group mind. Some people – particularly the New Age types – have even talked about things like a planetary intelligence, something that links us all together.

Years ago, when I was taking a machine learning course as part of my Master’s degree, we were learning about artificial neural networks, computer programs modelled on the way the human brain works. Apparently they can be highly useful and adaptable little things, learning how to understand a particular problem space, and then being able to take a bunch of assorted inputs and make sense of them based on what they’ve learned in training. Don’t ask me how; while I understand the concepts behind them, I still don’t understand how they work.

The concept intrigued me. I started to wonder if someone could build different artificial neural networks to do different things and string them together. For example, build one to handle visual inputs, another to handle tactile inputs, a third to turn a bunch of tactile and visual cues into spatial information and so on. Then, once you’d trained each individual part successfully, I figured that if you connected up the outputs from one trained network to the inputs of another trained network, you could get it doing some seriously clever things.

So, one afternoon during the break in the lecture, I asked my lecturer if anyone had built a neural network of neural networks. He looked at me oddly for a second and said, “it’d just be a neural network.” That concept floored me, but I quickly realised he was right; a collection of joined neural nets is just a single, large neural net, one that has the ability to do a much cleverer job than each individual subnet. It’s a very fractal thing.

Recently, I got to thinking about the human brain and how it processes information. Data comes into the brain through the various sensory organs and is processed in a variety of different ways. Each person then converts that information into something that they share with other people in different ways. It can be as simple as having a conversation about the weather over coffee, or it might be as complicated as a Nobel Prize winning physics thesis or a United Nations declaration on something or other. Each of us has one of the best neural networks that have ever existed, and it sits right inside out heads.

That’s when the words of my old machine learning lecturer came back to me: a neural network of neural networks is just a neural network.

Suddenly, I realised that there was such a thing as a global consciousness. Every single one of us contributes daily to the world-wide intelligence. Each one of us takes in some information, processes it and then passes that information on to other people so that they can do things with it as well.

With the advent of things like the Internet, each individual person has the ability to influence a much larger number of other people, thereby allowing more information to pass quicker and be processed by a much larger portion of the population than was possible even fifteen or twenty years ago. We’re all part of a single, enormous neural network.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the global intelligence is a product of some divine being or anything like that. I’m not even saying that it exists for any particular reason other than it just evolved that way. I’m just pointing out that it actually does exist, at least from a particular point of view.

So, maybe old Doug wasn’t so far off the mark after all. Maybe the Earth is just some sort of giant computer, trying to work something out.