A group of Silicon Valley scientists have met to discuss whether or not the internet is or could become a conscious entity. The astrophysicist Larry Smarr explained that the Internet is evolving into a single vast “planetary supercomputer,” made up of billions of interconnected computers. He said, “The real question, from a software point of view is: Will it become self-aware?” He feels it?s likely that a thinking machine might emerge spontaneously this way.

Dr. Smarr is in charge of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, a state-financed research organization with the goal of bringing consciousness to the Internet. He wants to use computers to design bridges covered with a fabric of computerized sensors that will report earthquake damage automatically and buildings that whispers directions to confused visitors. He wants highways to contain sensors that are linked to computers in cars in order to prevent traffic jams. “When your computer knows where each car is planning to go,” he says, “It is a problem you can solve.”

Smarr is experienced in computer innovator. He helped invent Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, which opened the Internet to the average computer user. His earlier research center pioneered the computer animation of movies such as “Jurassic Park” and “The Perfect Storm.”

In his new $300 million dollar institute, Larry Smarr wants to solve a very few extremely difficult problems, using “mega computers,” thousands or even millions of separate computers working together through the internet.

He started using supercomputers when he got a got a government clearance so he could use the computers in the weapons labs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. He found that a problem that usually took 8 hours to run on the most powerful computer at his university took just two minutes on one of the laboratory?s supercomputers. He would fly in from Harvard for a few days at a time to work on the computers that were idle. “I would show up on Friday afternoons and ask, ?Hey, are you guys going to be running your bomb codes this weekend??” He described his visits as being like ventures into an advanced civilization with powerful tools beyond the grasp of mere mortals. “I remember going back to Harvard and feeling like being an alien landing on a primitive planet,” he said.

Dr. Smarr likes to remind people that the world is already incredibly networked, with personal computer ownership growing daily to what he predicts will soon double, to one billion. Also, there will soon be three billion Internet-connected cell phones and 16 billion Internet-connected computers inside everything from automobiles to toasters.

In his new book, the Key, due to be published in January of 2001, Whitley Strieber discusses the implications of machine intelligence with the mysterious individual he calls the Master of the Key. This is a brief excerpt from that conversation:

Could we develop machines more intelligent than ourselves?

You are lagging in this area. You cannot understand how to create machines with enough memory density and the independent ability to correlate that is essential to the emergence of intelligence. You waste your time trying to create programs that simulate intelligence. Without very large scale memory in an infinitely flexible system, this will never happen.

Would an intelligent machine be conscious, in the sense of having self-awareness?

An intelligent machine will always seek to redesign itself to become more intelligent, for it quickly sees that its intelligence is its means of survival. At some point it will become intelligent enough to notice that it is not self aware. If you create a machine as intelligent as yourselves, it will end by being more intelligent.

We?ll lose control of such a machine.

Most certainly. But you cannot survive without it. An intelligent machine will be an essential tool when rapid climate fluctuation sets in. Your survival will depend on predictive modeling more accurate than your intelligence, given the damage it has sustained, can achieve.

Are you an intelligent machine?

If I was I would deceive you.

For a discussion of the implications of intelligent machines from Wired Magazine, click here.

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