The World Brain Experiment

“We want a reconditioned and more powerful Public Opinion. In a universal organisation and clarification of knowledge and ideas, in a closer synthesis of university and educational activities, in the evocation, that is, of what I have here called a World Brain, operating by an enhanced educational system through the whole body of mankind, a World Brain which will replace our multitude of unco-ordinated ganglia, our powerless miscellany of universities, research institutions, literatures with a purpose, national educational systems and the like; in that and in that alone, it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for world affairs, any hope of an adequate directive control of the present destructive drift of world affairs. We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself. To work out a way to that World Brain organisation is therefore our primary need in this age of imperative construction.” World Brain, H. G. Wells, 1938

“We want a reconditioned and more powerful Public Opinion”

Those words were written by H. G. Wells in 1938, the year Hitler made a triumphal entry into Vienna to celebrate the Anschluss with Austria, the year of the Munich Agreement consenting to the annexation of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for peace (!), the year of the Kristallnacht when Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed and their owners later fined for the destruction!!!

To many, the world of 2018 might not look as bad as the one of 1938… But what would a survivor of Rwanda’s genocide have to say about today’s world (800,000 Tutsi murdered)? An Iraqi living in “liberated Irak” (between 180,807 and 202,757 civilian deaths) or a Syrian (+500,000 killed, 5.1 million refugees and 6.3 million internally displaced)? To add insult to injury, let’s not forget that Syria’s rulers used the informed advice of Alois Brunner, an Austrian SS officer who worked as Adolf Eichmann’s assistant and ran the notorious Drancy camp. What goes around…

While one might find disturbing similarities between the annexion of Crimea by Putin to that of Sudetenland by Hitler, or between the Russian involvement in Syria and that of the Condor Legion during the Spanish war, this is probably not what we should worry about most. What should worry us is the withering of “public opinion” and its bodies, the free press, the trade unions and the political parties, its fragmentation at the most atomic level, the individual, under the influence of the new mass media, the ill-named social media.

“Imagine a school newspaper that only ever discussed bullies — what they’re wearing, what they said, which one was on top. That’s American thought now — it doesn’t know how to think anymore. It’s been scared, or maybe hypnotized, into submission” writes umair haque in Why America Still Doesn’t Get Authoritarians are (Just) Bullies. He adds “I’m not just saying: ‘ignore the trolls.’ I’m saying: ‘bullies thrive on attention. The best way to defeat a bully is to conquer them with more, better, worthier, attention.’”

Far from accomplishing H. G. Wells’ dream of reconditioning a “more powerful public opinion” we now have multiple evidence that traditional mass media and the improperly named social media, are actively contributing to destroying the very fabric of our society: trust. We knew from numerous statistics that our western societies have a serious problem with trust, trust in institutions, trust in politicians, trust in media etc. We are reaching a new stage where we are being told that trust, a property that might have been useful in the past, is now becoming redundant.

A new technology has emerged claiming to have made trust superfluous: the (public) blockchain. The success of a public blockchain like the Bitcoin or Ethereum is based on a very  interesting property, it is trust-less (the Newspeak word for distrust), i.e. it would remain fully functional in a society were everybody is at war with everybody. In fact, the ideal condition for a (public) blockchain like Bitcoin to be protected against sibyl attacks, is when the nodes contributing to the network distrust each other — an agreement between those holding 50% of the computing (mining) power would be necessary to take over the network. Distrust, the destructor of civil society, is what makes public blockchains so reliable—and Oceania so stable! As the Bitcoin has demonstrated, distrust is a business that can make you rich if you are ready to share the same infrastructure with weapons smugglers, human traffickers, pimps and drug dealers, who already thrive on distrust in the real world and are more than happy to work with you, hand in hand (don’t forget to recount your fingers!) to inflate the Bitcoin bubble.

Is there an alternative to a world where social media is being used as propaganda under disguise? Is a technology based on distrust the best way to create a trustworthy society? Can we bring Tim Berners Lee’s invention, the World Wide Web, to a new stage of maturity to support a “reconditioned and more powerful Public Opinion”?

“We want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself”

“Please do not imagine that I am indulging in any fantasy when I talk of your work and your accumulations as the rudimentary framework of a world brain. I am speaking of a process of mental organisation throughout the world which I believe to be as inevitable as anything can be in human affairs. The world has to pull its mind together, and this is the beginning of its effort. The world is a Phoenix. It perishes in flames and even as it dies it is born again. This synthesis of knowledge is the necessary beginning to the new world.” (ibid.)

The field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), is often presented as divided into two main paradigms: Symbolic AI and Connectionist AI. Symbolic AI, also referred to as Good-Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI) is based on the application of a set of explicit rules using symbols and logic as performed by expert systems, while the Connectionist approach is based on a computational system inspired by the human brain, like neural networks. Some, like Eliezer Yudkowsky, claim that this AI dichotomy is irrelevant (link),

Similarly, the field of learning is divided between cognitivists and constructivists —there are also behaviourists, but who really cares for what they have to say about humans when what they have learned is primarily based on the observation of dogs (Pavlov) rats (Watson) and pigeons (Skinner). Cognitivism can be described as an enhanced form of behaviourism, where the stimulus-response model of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner is augmented with a representation of mental structures and processes. The main avatar of this model is the representation of the brain as a kind of sophisticated computing machine. The study of dogs, crawling rats and flying rats is now superseded by the study of computers (mice again!) as a model for how we learn. Cognitivism, that can be defined as digital behaviourism, uses computers to model human learning in order to… use computers to support human learning (sounds a bit self-referential, doesn’t it?).

So, how do we learn?

“When we associate experiences in our mind, we aren’t performing any sort of inference on them, and we don’t even typically represent them in a language. We see our child’s face every day, and we don’t describe it to ourselves, we simply come to recognize this particular collection of features as it is presented to us every day. To ‘know’ that one sort of thing causes another is simply to recognize this circumstance each time we see it. To be able to read, to infer, and even to reason, is to recognize common word forms, syllogisms, or commonalities. The recognition, and the fact of recognition, is the knowledge and the justification for knowledge all rolled into one – a direct, non-inferential form of knowledge.” (Stephen Downes, Knowledge as Recognition)

How from what precedes can we follow H. G. Wells’ invitation to widespread a world intelligence conscious of itself?

The World Brain Experiment

“A World Encyclopaedia no longer presents itself to a modern imagination as a row of volumes printed and published once for all, but as a sort of mental clearing house for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarised, digested, clarified and compared.“ (ibid.)

If we start from the hypothesis that knowing is recognising, then a world brain should be able to recognise: recognise people, ideas, places, events, etc. This can be achieved using artificial intelligence and/or collective intelligence, i.e. “the intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals” (Wikipedia).

Pierre Lévy defines collective intelligence as, “a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. I’ll add the following indispensable characteristic to this definition: The basis and goal of collective intelligence is mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.” (Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, highlights are mine).

We have our first construct to set our World Brain experiment: mutual recognition, something easily instantiated using recognition tokens such as Open Badges. Let’s imagine a place in the cyberspace where all these recognition tokens are stored (under our control): the recognised entities would be like neurones while the recognition tokens synapses. Of course, today’s Open Badges are very primitive synapses (while individuals would—usually— be extremely sophisticated neurones) but this is just the first iteration of a nascent World Brain independent from any infrastructure à la Facebook or other pseudo social media.

Our first World Brain, the connection through mutual recognition, would be like our primitive brain, a kind of reptilian brain. It wouldn’t be involved in sophisticated knowing, but could be very useful to identify predators, trolls and other enemies of democracy. Should cancerous cells appear in our World Brain promoting authoritarian or racist views, it would be easy to cut those cells out and let them have their own mini-reptilian brain, as it is a well known fact that racists have smaller brains than humans (and smaller hands!).

This first stage of the World Brain could be used to recognise not just predators, but many other useful things, like ideas, places, projects, initiatives, skills, knowledge, values, achievements etc.

The second stage of the World Brain could benefit from artificial intelligence exploiting the set of data connected through the World Brain. The “widespread world intelligence conscious of itself” of H. G. Wells could be rephrased as “distributed world intelligence conscious of itself” using artificial intelligence the way we use a GPS to travel — or GOMs (Good Old Maps).

We would be the empowered operators of the clearing house for the mind!

The World Brain Experiment should take place during the Open Recognition Week, 22-28 October 2018, the week of ePIC 2018. So, if you are interested to join and contribute to its success, please send a message to week at openrecognition.org.

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