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Could the internet become conscious?

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Asked by: Edward Seymour, Hove

An old belief system called ‘panpsychism’ suggests that something resembling a mind or consciousness exists in all physical things. In recent years, researchers such as neuroscientist Christof Koch have tried to update these ideas, saying that if there are enough connections between elements – like synapses in the brain – then consciousness may naturally start to form.


The average human brain has 86 billion neurons, with some 100 trillion connections between them – does this mean that if something else has the same number of connections, it will also become conscious? Some believe so.

Like our brains, the internet is a massively connected entity, made up of computers, mobile devices and the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) – smart, networked objects including household appliances, wearable gadgets, vehicles and even entire factories. According to one estimate, the number of internet-connected devices will reach 125 billion worldwide by 2030. So the connectivity of the internet seems to be fast approaching that of our brain.

But how would we know if the internet had become conscious? An internet that’s as connected as the brain might process information as quickly as we do, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to ‘wake up’ or become self-aware. There are big differences between the two systems: our sense of consciousness is created by brains that have evolved over millions of years, whereas the internet is a human-designed network that’s been around for a few decades.

Ultimately, consciousness is still such a poorly understood subject that we won’t have a definitive answer to your question until we figure out how to measure consciousness in the first place.

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Dr Peter Bentley is a computer scientist and author who is based at University College London. He is the author of books including 10 Short Lessons in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Digital Biology: How nature is transforming our technology and our lives.


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