People way smarter than me

I just finished reading a most excellent essay, Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson (billed as “a historian among futurists”). In it, the author traces the history of “the web” from its first conceptions to its modern inception, which looks and acts more and more like a collective brain for mankind – learning, remembering, and adapting in ways very similar to biological systems. The implication, of course, is that from the web will eventually emerge the first true AI – something which I've thought likely for a while, and has certainly been remarked upon by smart people since at least the late 90's. The article touches on the exact intersection of technology, culture, philosophy, and science fiction that endlessly fascinates me.

I won't recap it further than that – just read the essay, it's worth it, even for non-technically inclined people.

What I do wish to remark on though is several of the anecdotes he has. For instance:

“The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual,” wrote H. G. Wells in his 1938 prophecy World Brain. “This new all-human cerebrum need not be concentrated in any one single place. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.” Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain. “In a universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas… in the evocation, that is, of what I have here called a World Brain… in that and in that alone, it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for 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.”

H.G. Wells, in 1938, described the world wide web, though he couldn't have known it at the time. The kind of prescience that that demonstrates, the kind of leap of imagination beyond anything which had been conceived of before just completely floors me. As someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about the future, I don't think I've had any insight which is even a shadow of the one quoted above.


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