w_daniel_hillis's picture
Physicist, Computer Scientist, Co-Founder, Applied Invention.; Author, The Pattern on the Stone

In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!" He was writing about the telegraph, but today we make essentially the same observation about the Internet.

One might suppose that, with all its zillions of transistors and billions of human minds, the world brain would be thinking some pretty profound thoughts. There is little evidence that this is so. Today's Internet functions mostly as a giant communications and storage system, accessed by individual humans. Although much of human knowledge is represented in some form within the machine, it is not yet represented in a form that is particularly meaningful to the machine. For the most part, the Internet knows no more about the information it handles than the telephone system knows about the conversations that take place over its lines. Most of those zillions of transistors are either doing something very trivial or nothing at all, and most of those billions of human minds are doing their own thing.

If there is such a thing as a world mind today, then its thoughts are primarily about commerce. It is the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith, deciding the prices, allocating the capital. Its brain is composed not only of the human buyers and sellers, but also of the trading programs on Wall Street and of the economic models of the central banks. The wires "vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time" are not just carrying messages between human minds, they are participating in the decisions of the world mind as a whole. This unconscious system is the world's hindbrain.

I call this the hindbrain because it is performing unconscious functions necessary to the organism's own survival, functions that are so primitive that they predate development of the brain. Included in this hindbrain are the functions of preference and attention that create celebrity, popularity and fashion, all fundamental to the operation of human society. This hindbrain is ancient. Although it has been supercharged by technology, growing in speed and capacity, it has grown little in sophistication. This global hindbrain is subject to mood swings and misjudgments, leading to economic depressions, panics, witch-hunts, and fads. It can be influenced by propaganda and by advertising. It is easily misled. As vital as the hindbrain is for survival, it is not very bright.

What the world mind really needs is a forebrain, with conscious goals, access to explicit knowledge, and the ability to reason and plan. A world forebrain would need the capacity to perceive collectively, to decide collectively, and to act collectively. Of these three functions, our ability to act collectively is the most developed.

For thousands of years we have understood methods for breaking a goal into sub-goals that can be accomplished by separate teams, and for recursively breaking them down again and again until they can be accomplished by individuals. This management by hierarchy scales well. I can imagine that the construction of the pyramids was a celebration of its discovery. The hierarchical teams that built these monuments were an extension of the pharaoh's body, the pyramid a dramatic demonstration of his power to coordinate the efforts of many. Pyramid builders had to keep their direct reports within shouting distance, but electronic communication has allowed us to extend our virtual bodies, literally corporations, to a global scale. The Internet has even allowed such composite action to organize itself around an established goal, without the pharaoh. The Wikipedia is our Great Pyramid.

The collective perception of the world mind is also relatively well developed. The most important recent innovations have been search and recommendation engines, which combine the inputs of humans with machine algorithms to produce a useful result. This is another area where scale helps. Many eyes and many judgments are combined into a collective perception that is beyond the scope of any individual. The weak point is that the result of all this collective perception is just a recommendation list. For the world mind to truly perceive, it will need a way of sharing more general forms of knowledge, in a format that can be understood by both humans and machines. Various new companies are beginning to do just that.

What is still missing is the ability for a group of people (or people and machines) to make collective decisions with intelligence greater than the individual. This can sometimes be accomplished in small groups through conversation, but the method does not scale well. Generally speaking, technology has made the conversation larger, but not smarter. For large groups, the state-of-the-art method for collective decision-making is still the vote. Voting only works to the degree that, on average, each voter is able to individually determine the right decision. This is not good enough. We need an intelligence that will scale with the size of our problems.

So this is the development that will make a difference: a method for groups of people and machines to work together to make decisions in a way that takes advantage of scale. With such a scalable method for collective decision-making, our zillions of transistors and billions of brains can be used to advantage, giving the collective mind a way to focus our collective actions. Given this, we will finally have access to intelligence greater than our own. The world mind will finally have a forebrain, and this will change everything.