The Emergence of a Global Brain

pantgrievousAI and Robotics

Nov 30, 2013 (3 years and 6 months ago)





The Emergence of a Global Brain

Francis Heylighen


There is little doubt that the most important technological, economic and social
development of the past decades is the emergence of a global, computer
communication network. This ne
twork has been growing at an explosive rate,

directly or indirectly

ever more aspects of the daily lives of the
people on this planet. A general trend is that the information network becomes
ever more global, more encompassing, more tightly linke
d to the individuals
and groups that use it, and more intelligent in the way it supports them. The
web doesn't just passively provide information, it now also actively alerts and
guides people to the best options for them personally, while stimulating them

share their experience. To support this, the web increasingly builds on the
knowledge and intelligence of all its users collectively, thanks to technologies
such as blogs, wikis, ontologies, collaborative filtering, software agents, and
online markets.

It appears as though the net is turning into a nervous system for

The “Global Brain” is a metaphor for this emerging, collectively intelligent
network that is formed by the people of this planet together with the computers,
knowledge bas
es, and communication links that connect them together. This
network is an immensely complex, self
organizing system. It not only processes
information, but increasingly can be seen to play the role of a brain: making


Francis Heylighen is a research professor at the Free University of Brussels (VUB),
where he directs the Evolutio
n, Complexity and Cognition group. His research is
focused on the self
organization and evolution of complex, intelligent systems
consisting of many interacting agents. He is editor of the Principia Cybernetica Project
for the development of an evolutionar
systemic philosophy, and chair of the Global
Brain group. He has published over a hundred scientific papers on these and related
topics. Home page:




decisions, solving problems, learning
new connections, and discovering new
ideas. No individual, organization or computer is in control of this system: its
knowledge and intelligence are distributed over all its components. They
emerge from the collective interactions between all the human and

subsystems. Such a system may be able to tackle current and emerging global
problems that have eluded more traditional approaches. Yet, at the same time it
will create new technological and social challenges that are still difficult to

istory of the Global Brain vision

Although these developments seem very modern, the underlying visions of
knowledge and society have deep roots, going back to Antiquity, and developed
in particular during the 19th and 20th centuries. This concept of a cogn
system at the planetary level has been proposed by many different authors
under different names: planetary brain, world brain, global mind, noosphere,
social brain, Metaman [Stock, 1993], super
organism [Heylighen, 2007c],
being [Turchin, 1977]
, and collective consciousness are some of the
roughly equivalent synonyms. The evolutionary theologian Teilhard de Chardin
[1969, first published 1947 but written earlier] was probably the first to focus
on the mental organization of this social organism,

which he called the
“noosphere”. Around the same time, the science fiction writer H. G. Wells
[1938] proposed the concept of a “world brain” as a unified system of
knowledge, accessible to all. The term “global brain” seems to have been first
used by Russ
ell [1995]. The first people to have made the connection between
this concept and the emerging Internet may well be Mayer
Kress [1995] and de
Rosnay [2000]. Heylighen and Bollen [1996], and Goertzel [2001] appear to be
the first researchers to have propos
ed concrete technologies that might turn the
Internet into an intelligent, brain
like network.

The global brain vision draws part of its inspiration from a number of
related approaches. Collective intelligence [Lévy, 1997; Heylighen, 1999] is the
dea that a group can be more intelligent than its members. The best
examples are social insects, such as ants, termites or bees, which are
individually dumb, but capable of surprisingly intelligent behavior when
functioning as a group. The intelligen
ce of the global brain will be collective, as
it arises from the interactions between millions of individuals. Symbiotic
intelligence is the idea that intelligence can also emerge from the interactions
between essentially different components, such as peop
le and computers. As de


Rosnay [2000] proposes, people will live in symbiosis with this surrounding
network of technological systems, and out of this symbiosis, a higher
intelligence will emerge.

Although most researchers have addressed the g
lobal brain idea from a
scientific or technological point of view, authors like Teilhard de Chardin
[1969] and Russell [1995] have explored some of its spiritual aspects. Similar
to many mystical traditions, the global brain idea holds the promise of a muc
enhanced level of consciousness and a state of deep synergy or union that
encompasses humanity as a whole. Theists might view this state of holistic
consciousness as a union with God. Humanists might see it as the creation, by
humanity itself, of an enti
ty with God
like powers. Followers of the Gaia
hypothesis have suggested that the “living Earth” of which we are all part
deserves awe and worship; it therefore could form the basis of a secular,
ecologically inspired religion. The Global Brain vision may
offer a similar
sense of belonging to a larger whole and of an encompassing purpose.

The evolution of cooperation

While most conceptions of the Global Brain are based on some kind of
progressive evolution towards higher levels of complexity and integratio
n, this
assumption receives surprisingly little support from the theory of evolution
itself. The traditional (neo
)Darwinist theory emphasizes the gradual, erratic,
and non
directed character of variation and natural selection, and the struggle
for existen
ce between selfish organisms or genes. It is only in the last decade
that biologists have started to focus on the “major transitions” in evolution,
such as the emergence of multicellular organisms out of single cells, or
societies out of individuals

ng the specific circumstances in which
components can turn from selfish, competing individuals to cooperating
members of a collective. The general consensus seems to be that, while such
transitions have happened, they are rare and difficult to achieve, bec
ause they
require sophisticated control mechanisms to protect the cooperative from being
exploited by “free riders”, i.e. individuals that profit from the efforts of others
without investing anything in return.

The new approach of
evolutionary cybe

[Heylighen, 2007b]
integrates the Darwinian logic of variation and natural selection with the
cybernetic analysis of emergent levels of organization. This approach originates
with the ideas of the Russian
American computer scientist Turchin [1977].




Turchin's most important contribution is the concept of
metasystem transition
the evolution of a higher level of control and cognition. In analogy with the
emergence of multicellular organisms, Turchin predicted that humans would be
integrated into a glo
, communicating through the direct
connection of their nervous systems.

Turchin had not yet tackled the problem of free riders, though. Extending
his theory, I have suggested a possible solution [Heylighen & Campbell, 1995],
arguing th
at shared knowledge or culture (“memes”) can function like a control
mechanism to thwart free riders, and that its spread will be facilitated by global
communication technology. A more general version of this process was
proposed by the Australian social s
cientist John Stewart [2000]. He argues that
any system, whether an individual, institution or ideology, that manages to take
control of a collective

even if for initially selfish purposes

will eventually
evolve into an efficient “manager” that keeps selfi
sh abuses in check, because it
is in its own interest to have the collective function synergetically. As a result,
evolution produces ever wider and deeper synergy, up to the global level. A
similar conclusion was reached by Robert Wright [2000], who exami
ned the
historical role of different technologies and institutions, such as writing, money
and law, in turning the “zero
sum” competition between individuals into a
sum” cooperation.

Unlike material resources, knowledge and information do

not diminish by
being shared with others (economists call this property “non
[Heylighen, 2007a]. Since an intelligent web would make this sharing effortless
and free, this enables a positive
sum interaction in which everyone gains by
making thei
r individual knowledge and experience available to others. This
provides a continuing incentive for further cognitive integration. The web plays
here the role of a shared memory, that collects, organizes and makes available
collective wisdom [Heylighen, 19
99]. It achieves this without demanding
anything from its users or contributors beyond what they would have had to
invest if they were working on their own

thus removing any incentive for
riding. This is the perspective of
, i.e. the spontane
ous, indirect
collaboration made possible and stimulated by a shared medium [Heylighen,




The mechanism of stigmergy, which was proposed to explain the collective
intelligence of social insects, is perhaps best exemplified by Wikipedia, t
global electronic encyclopedia that is being written collaboratively by millions
of people. Any user of the web can add to or edit the text of any Wikipedia

or create a new one, if its subject is not covered yet. Yet, the
collaboration between W
ikipedia contributors is essentially
. Over its
history of a few years a typical article has been edited by a few dozen different
people from different parts of the globe. In general, these people have never
met or even communicated from person to
person. Their interaction is merely
implicit, through the changes that the one makes to the text written by the other.

When they disagree about how to express a particular subject, the one may
repeatedly correct the statements written by the other
and vice versa, until
perhaps a compromise or synthesis emerges

which may have been proposed
by one or more third parties. This is variation and selection at work: different
people contribute different text fragments, some of which are clear, accurate
relevant, some of which are less so. The continuing process of revisioning
by a variety of users will normally leave the good contributions in place, and
get rid of the poor ones, until the text as a whole provides a clear, coherent and
depth coverage o
f its subject, without glaring mistakes.

This example shows the power of stigmergy: thanks to the availability of
the medium (in this case the Wikipedia website) independent agents together
perform a complex activity that is beneficial to all, mini
mizing social frictions
and stimulating synergy

and this without need for a hierarchical control or
coordination, a clear plan, or even any direct communication between the
agents [Heylighen, 2007c]. In the present web, similar mechanisms are being
used to

collaboratively develop not just an encyclopedia of existing knowledge,
but a variety of novel knowledge and applications, including various types of
open source software, scientific papers, and even forecasts of the world to
come. In the future web, stig
mergy can be extended from a qualitative
mechanism (eliciting new knowledge or actions) to a quantitative one (ordering
and prioritizing existing knowledge or actions) [Heylighen, 1999, 2007ac]. This
will lead to new technologies for intelligent decision s




Technologies for a Global Brain

The web is the hypermedia interface to the information residing on the Internet.
It makes it possible to seamlessly integrate documents that are distributed over
the entire planet, and created by people who may not e
ven be aware of each
others' existence. What holds these documents together is not their geographic
location, but their
: links connecting mutually relevant pages. This
hypermedia architecture is analogous to the one of our brain, where concept
are connected by associations, and the corresponding assemblies of neurons by
synapses. The web thus functions like a huge associative memory for society.

However, the brain is more than a static memory: it can

Learning takes pl
ace by the strengthening of associations that are used often,
and the weakening of rarely used associations. Through learning, the brain
constantly enhances its organization and increases its store of knowledge.
Thinking happens by the activation of concep
ts and the “spreading” of this
activation to related concepts, in proportion to the strength of association.
Thinking allows the brain to solve problems, to make decisions, and to be
creative, that is, discover combinations of concepts never encountered be
By making simple changes to its static architecture, we can implement similar
processes on the web.

In the brain, learning follows the rule of Hebb: if two neurons are activated
in close succession, the strength of their connection is increas
ed. I have
proposed to apply a similar procedure to the web [Heylighen and Bollen, 1996,
2002]: if two web pages are consulted by the same user within a short interval,
either the existing hyperlink between the pages gets a higher weight, or a new
link is
created. On any given page, only the links with a minimum weight are
shown. Thus, links that are not sufficiently reinforced may eventually
disappear. The result is that such a learning web constantly adapts to the way it
is used, reorganizing its pattern
of links to best reflect the preferences of its
users. In practice, this creates direct links between the pages that are most
strongly related, bypassing less interesting detours, and clustering pages
together according to their mutual relevance. As such,
the web becomes much
more efficient to use, by assimilating the collective knowledge and desires of
its users.

The simplest way to implement web “thinking” is to create a specialized
. This is a program that works as a “delegate” of i
ts user,


autonomously collecting information that is likely to be interesting to its user.
The agent can learn the user's preferences simply by observing which pages the
user actively uses, or it can receive specific instructions (e.g. keywords) from
the u
ser. Given that preference profile, the agent can locate pages that satisfy
the profile, and then use “spreading activation” to find further, related
documents. It does this by “activating” pages in proportion to their degree of
interestingness, and then p
ropagating that activation according to the hyperlinks
and their weights as learned from other users. Thus, it can discover new
documents, that may not contain any of the initially given keywords, but that
are still highly relevant to the query. This is es
pecially useful when the user
cannot clearly formulate the query, but only has an intuitive feel for it.

With such technologies, the web would become a giant, collective brain,
which you could consult at any moment to get an answer to your question
however unusual or vaguely formulated they may be. Its thought processes
would always be ready to enhance and extend your own thinking. To fully
harness the power of this global brain, it should be constantly available. The
rapid spread of mobile commun
ication already offers universal access to the
web, wherever you are. Further miniaturization will lead to wearable
computers, incorporated in your clothing, with images projected on your
glasses. Automatic recognition of speech, gestures and even emotions

make communication with the web much easier and more intuitive. In the
longer term, we can foresee direct connections between computer and brain,
through neural interfaces. This would allow you to communicate with the
global brain simply by thinking,

having your thoughts immediately sensed,
understood, and enhanced. Your thoughts could also be directly turned into
actions, as when you use the global brain to order a pizza, get a taxi, or switch
on the heating, so that it would be nice and warm by the
time you come home.

Social benefits

Now that we have a better grasp of how a global brain
like system would
function in practice, let us try to summarize its great advantages for society.
The market is the collective system of transactions that helps supp
ly to match
demand, and thus to fulfill the need of the collective customer for products and
services. A traditional market is rather inefficient, requiring a huge
infrastructure of middlemen, specialized organizations such as stock exchanges
and auctions,

and communication channels. The Internet already allows such
transactions to take place much more quickly and transparently, with less cost



and effort. This strongly reduces friction, making the economy more efficient
so that demand can be satisfied more
rapidly, more accurately, and at a lower
cost [Heylighen, 2007b]. The global brain will not only facilitate direct
communication between buyers and sellers, but help buyers to find the best
value (e.g. through shopping agents to compare prices), and help s
ellers to get
the best price (e.g. through auctioning systems).

The net effect is that growth increases, while inflation and economic
instability decrease. Moreover, there will be less waste because of unsold items
or goods shipped far away when th
ere is demand around the corner. The direct
incorporation of collective effects (“externalities”) in the decision
process will moreover allow a more efficient governance over the economy,
thus protecting employees and consumers while reducing inequa
lities and
pollution, without the added complexity, bureaucracy and rigidity that tend to
accompany such interventions in a traditional political system.

The global brain will moreover help eliminate conflicts. It in principle
provides a universal c
hannel through which people from all countries,
languages and cultures of this world can communicate. This makes it easier to
reduce mutual ignorance and misunderstandings, or discuss and resolve
differences of opinion. The greater ease with which good ide
as can spread over
the whole planet will make it easier to reach global consensus about issues that
concern everybody. The free flow of information will make it more difficult for
authoritarian regimes to plan suppression or war. The growing interdependenc
will stimulate collaboration, while making war more difficult. The more
efficient economy will indirectly reduce the threat of conflict, since there will
be less competition for scarce resources.

Of course, technology alone will not solve all the

problems that threaten
our planet: in the end, people will have to agree about concrete policies to
tackle e.g. global warming or poverty. Yet, the global brain can support not
only the process of reaching consensus on a plan of action, but also its pract
implementation. For example, combating infectious diseases or pollution will
require extensive monitoring of the number of infections or concentration of
polluting gases in different regions. Information collected by local observers or
by electronic s
ensors can directly enter the global brain, be processed to reveal
underlying trends, and be forwarded to the people or institutions responsible for
taking direct action.




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The Symbiotic Man
. McGraw

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Distributed Digital Consciousness, and the Emerging Global Brain (Plenum)

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The World
Wide Web as a Super
Brain: from
metaphor to model
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Hebbian Algorithms for a

Digital Library
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The Global Brain as a new Utopia
”, in: R. Maresch & F.
Rötzer (eds.)
Renaissance der

Utopie (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt).

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: an evolutionary
model of the emerging ne
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p. 58

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ephemeralization and stigmergy to the global brain
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London: Routledge, p.286

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(all my papers can be downloaded via