The meta-organism: the Internet and us, is it real?

The Internet has become part of the fabric of our lives; if we want to create the next big thing we must understand the relationship between the Internet and us and take it to a whole new level.

I have been pondering about this relationship since I sold my latest company, but I never felt compelled to write about it, and this is not the post I wanted to write, just a hint :-)

A few days ago I attended the Emergent social behavior in bio-hybrid systems workshop at the Imperial College in London. The organizers' goal was to "[...] explore the emergence of bio-hybrid societies comprising living systems (i.e., organisms) and embodied artificial systems (i.e., robots)".

Blending robots and animals is not a new idea. But we now have the computational power and technology to trick some animals into believing that robots are actually members of their species. This allows scientists to conduct experiments about how, for example, bees communicate with their waggle dance. This is interesting because if we manage to understand the "language" used by insects, we could be able to affect their behavior; for example a future business could be about sending bees to pollinate a specific field, so that a farmer could just order the pollination service on the Internet with the click of a mouse. And it is not only about bees, but also mosquito, fish, cows, etc.

Extending this idea to us humans, we could reason that the Internet is modifying our behavior and that we are already a hybrid species, or a symbiotic one. In reality we know very little about the relationship between us and the Internet, because it is an extremely complex one. The idea floating around during the workshop was that a way to gain some insights would be to perform controlled experiments on the supposedly simpler interaction between animals and robots, to learn about the animal emergent social behavior and by extension about our relation to the Internet.

At the end of the workshop we brainstormed about the level of this symbiotic relationship. Some claimed that the meta-organism formed by us and the Internet might have acquired a kind of life of its own, which allows it to survive even if the parts composing it change, in a similar way as living organism survive even as the atoms they are composed of change during their lifetimes. The idea is that services such as Google are already adapting to our interactions with them, they can predict what we want, change context based on language used, etc. The claim is that since these services are driven by Artificial Intelligence there is some kind of meta-intelligence that is forming between us and the Internet.

During the discussion I had the impression that I was the only one disagreeing with this vision. The way I look at the Internet is that services based on Artificial Intelligence have very little Intelligence, in the sense that even the term Artificial Intelligence is misleading; AI is about mathematics and statistic, nothing more. Of course systems based on AI might look like they are adapting to our interactions, but in reality they have no understanding; it is the scores of engineers working for Google and the likes that perform the real adaptation based on understanding. So my point is that humans are still in the loop and that these systems are far from constituting a meta-organism with us.

As a final disclaimer one should always bear in mind that terms such as intelligence, understanding, life, organism, etc have no agreed upon definitions, so it is a bit confusing to have discussions involving these terms. But we need to start from somewhere, right?

The discussion went on for a while and many other interesting ideas were introduced, but this post is becoming too long and it is time to take a walk across Wimbledon Park ;-)