Breakpoint, book review: Is the internet really a brain?

Summary:According to neuroscientist and entrepreneur Jeff Stibel, the overgrown internet will eventually collapse to an efficient configuration and develop intelligence.

Our brains are shrinking, and this is a good thing. Having read, long ago, Stephen Jay Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man, I'd argue it's probably an irrelevant thing: the quality of brains is not effectively measured by their size. Otherwise, elephants would be running Congress and the shutdown wouldn't have occurred.

book-breakpoint-left

But this is sort of Jeff Stibel's point in Breakpoint (subtitled 'Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain'): highly interconnected systems grow like crazy until they reach some inherently unsustainable size limit and then they break. After that, they improve in quality by pruning substandard connections. Those who grew up reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may recognise in this idea Sherlock Holmes's belief that the brain was like an empty attic, and must be carefully stocked only with the furniture you actually need (this was his reason for not bothering to remember that the earth goes round the sun).

Now, I'm willing to accept that Stibel, the chair and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet, with a string of past startups to his name as well as degrees in brain science (Brown) and business, marketing and economics (MIT Sloan School of Business), knows more about the brain than I do. But when he starts talking about the web as having reached the digital analogue of this biological breakpoint and saying that we will now improve its quality by pruning the deadwood…well, I wonder which web he's talking about and why. Is he suggesting that the web will run out of space? The far more likely limiting factors are human attention and the availability of energy sources, neither of which is close to running out yet. Besides, one person's deadwood is another person's cute cat video.

Is AI already with us?

Stibel suggests that in future we won't do anything so clunky as type search terms into a box when we want to know something: we will think, and the information will find us

Stibel is more interesting, and much wilder, when discussing innovations like BrainGate, a brain-machine interface that makes it possible to control physical objects via thought — not, as paranormal believers might think, through telekinesis, but via a sensor embedded in the brain that senses the pattern of neurons firing and translates it into electrical signals. Stibel suggests, therefore, that in future we won't do anything so clunky as type search terms into a box when we want to know something: we will think, and the information will find us. He also believes that artificial intelligence is already with us — it's just that we keep changing the rules to avoid having to admit it. I'm going to argue with him on that last assertion: the Turing test hasn't changed since Turing proposed it.

I'm also going to argue with Stibel's conclusion: that the internet is a brain — not like a brain, but an actual brain. One day, as its interconnections continue to increase — perhaps in 20 years — intelligence will emerge, says Stibel. Well, maybe. But my inner biological supremacist says there's more to creating intelligence than connecting up a load of wires and software — even if the number of connections follows the neat little curve that's displayed by every system he studies.

 

Breakpoint: Why the Web will Implode, Search will be Obsolete, and Everything Else you Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain
By Jeff Stibel
Palgrave Macmillan
256 pages
ISBN: 978-1-137-27878-4
£17.29 / $28

Topics: After Hours, Reviews

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