The Brain versus The Web

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment


In his new book, Wired for Thought, entrepreneur Jeffrey M. Stibel takes the shop-worn notion that the brain functions like a computer and reorders it into a more useful new idea. The computer is not a brain, Stibel asserts, but the Internet could be.

The differences between the brain and a computer are numerous and inescapable. Among the key distinctions: Our millennia-old threepound thinking machines perform massive parallel processing. Even the best computers do this terribly in comparison. Electronic logic gates are faster than chemical synapses, but also much simpler. The brain evolved in response to natural circumstances as a tool for survival, but computers (and the vast majority of the programs that operate on them) are designed by people, not by the experience of life, and therefore will never truly be analogous to brains despite the best efforts of many of the world’s top AI researchers.

According to Stibel, computers are much better understood as elements within a larger intelligent system. They act less like brains and more like neurotransmitters. Web sites function as the neuronal synapses in this analogy. Like every synapse, sites hold information and then present that information when accessed. More importantly, Web sites deal in the stuff of the real world. From Wikipedia to the latest trend on Twitter, they serve not simply as files of coded instructions but as repositories of information about life on earth.

Every Web page faces the evolutionary imperative to be both unique and relevant; a Web site that is neither will pass to the digital dustbin, unviewed and unmaintained. Similarly, when the brain is forced to categorize some new sensory impress i on, i t f o rms a synapse link, a memory. Memories are subject to the same competitive forces that their host organisms must contend with. Those sites that are of little consequence, or that don’t prove particularly useful to the survival of the larger organism, fade with time.

Both the brain and the Internet employ memes or “units of culture” in the parlance of Richard Dawkins, originator of the term. The human neocortex is made of six layers; the topmost of these occupies itself with executing decisions after the lower orders have processed and refined the data to make that decision. Similarly, the makeup of the Web is hierarchical. Internet trends always start small, on individual computers, but quickly pick up momentum. The most-trafficked sites and applications like YouTube and Facebook are popular precisely because they make that process as fast as possible and involve the largest number of people.

Much like the brain, the Internet experienced a period of rapid expansion. But the brain actually grew too large for our Neanderthal predecessors and fell back in size, ultimately settling on 100 billion neurons and roughly 100 trillion interneuron connections. The Web will do the same thing, says Stibel: It will fall back in size and achieve a new equilibrium. This forecast puts Stibel in direct conflict with Internet optimists who contend that the Web can only grow continuously and even exponentially. Surely the Internet shows no sign of curbing its growth anytime soon.

Stibel’s theory is rather comforting, even flattering in the way it reduces the future of the Internet to the evolutionary history of the human thinking organ. According to this view, in the coming decades, the Internet will adapt to the world much as the brain did. It will seek to identify patterns in order to better predict what may happen next. Signs of this future are already evident. In September, Netflix awarded $1 million to a software team who figured out a way for the company to better “predict” what movies its customers might most want to watch. The Web is getting smarter about the real world all the time, accumulating information about the way the world sounds, smells, and tastes through real-time sensing technology. Many trend watchers, such as Tim O’Reilly, consider sensor technology to be the next great trend to move the Internet forward (Web 3.0, if you will). We will merge our brains with the Web, not simply through implants, but through our behavior. This will quickly change the way we experience the Web – and the way the Web experiences us.

No longer will you “surf” the Web, traveling to different sites seeking out information. The Web will search itself and customize itself for you as you encounter it. Stibel points to a company called that dynamically builds entirely new Web pages based on a particular search. “The Web will one day be able to generate a Web page specific to your request, just as the brain fires off new symphonies of excitation when it encounters a novel subject,” he writes.

Missing from this engaging and persuasive book is any doubt or hesitation that a future smarter, more brainlike Internet is a good thing. A cautious pause may be in order. The basics of biology suggest that intelligent creatures prioritize their own survival above the well-being of others. We evolved our smarts to better survive in a competitive, difficult environment. If the Internet is a brain, the question becomes, what does it think of us?


About the Reviewer

Patrick Tucker is the senior editor of THE FUTURIST and director of communications for the World Future Society.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2010

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