World-wise web? Finally on the horizon are computers that can reason

Posted: September 8, 2008 in 2008, Articles
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Richard Waters, of the Financial Times of London, did a recent whitewash report on “Web 3.0” aka the “Semantic Web” that deserves some commentary…

Seemingly, the main subject is the notion of the Internet itself becoming “Artificial General Intelligence” (the stuff in the movies). The concept isn’t quite new, and it goes something like this: the planetary scale Internet represents the human brain, while the network routers and personal computers and supercomputers make up the ‘brain neurons’ (cells) that do all of the ‘brain processing’. The Internet is the brain.

The only problem is it would take a sort of miracle for it to autonomously become ‘alive’, not unlike describing the functioning of the human brain from the micro to macro levels is about as miraculous as it gets short of the “Big Bang”. But while few can expect any sort of ‘divine intervention’ to step in and ‘give life’ to the Internet ‘for it’, we have solid human intervention at all levels and scales picking up the slack.

One example could be DARPA’s hand in designing the more statish of the art “self-healing” main network routers and related hardware developed for government / military networks and set for powering the “Internet2”. [See: Fault Tolerant Networks] Actually, Internet2 is apparently already operational and in-use across many national laboratories and universities.

We could also muse about how, in the context of single computers representing single ‘cells’ in the ‘Internet brain’, there are some rather extraodinary ‘cells’ out there with supercomputers such as IBM’s “Blue Gene” which is currently tasked with modeling the human brain, amongst countless other examples.

But Waters reports that “AI” is overtly the goal via the “Semantic Web” concept, that in the simpliest sense its about crafting a sort of universal language designed so that machines (search engines in particular) can understand the data within media, not just know what pages exist :

Yet to suggest that computers will be able to determine meaning raises a thorny question: whether meaning itself has an independent existence or is something that arises only in the mind of the person perceiving it. Terms such as “meaning” and “understanding” are so closely linked to human intelligence that it is hard to conceive of their corollaries in a computer-mediated world.

In reality, the semantic web is based on a defined and narrow – even if still highly ambitious – set of goals. It is the brainchild of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the present web, a collection of documents connected by links using hypertext mark-up language. Tracing those links, companies such as Google are able to identify documents that are likely to be most relevant to a particular search – though they can only point to the document, not dig deeper to find the actual information that is being sought.

To overcome this, Sir Tim imagined a new web formed by linking the data contained inside the documents. That way the data, not just the documents, would become accessible to machines. Riding this network of links, computers would be able to follow related ideas from one website to another and draw together related information. A reference to Sir Tim in Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopaedia, could for instance be connected directly to his name in this article on and to his personal social network on Facebook.

“If you put data on the web about yourself in this form, I can pull data about you,” he says. Subject to privacy and other restrictions, the web itself would In effect become one vast social network, tracing links between people, or between people and things, that were previously invisible.

This semantic web is the product of a set of core standards promoted by the World Wide Web Consortium, the organisation that Sir Tim leads. “It’s happening – it has just taken a long time to build,” he says. “HTML is a really simple language. All this data stuff is more complicated. It just takes more design work.”

The article then further elaborates on the above and also related technical obstacles.

The article fails to provide much context into what that all means in the potential risk sense. And despite the apparent revelations, he quotes and takes the position of AI defeatists & AGI-risk optimists.

He does mention a couple of the more controversial Google CEO quotes, but then sooth speaks their meanings:

Further in the future, adding a degree of reasoning to the software may enable it to filter and select information. That may start off simply – acting on your behalf, for instance, a software agent sets out across the web to compare prices for a product and identify the lowest. Eventually it may lead to making decisions on your behalf. As Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, told the FT last year: “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question, such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘Which job shall I take?'”

This fuller version of artificial intelligence is still over the horizon but the path towards it is “a continuum”, says Mr Hillis. Contrary to the early dreams of AI, he adds, it will not be intelligent machines that provide many of the advances but dumb machines throwing up apparently smart answers by using tricks that the human brain cannot match.

The current kings of Silicon Valley certainly have no intention of being left behind. As Mr Brin said in that 2004 Playboy interview: “It’s credible to imagine a leap as great as that from hunting through library stacks to a Google session, when we leap from today’s search engines to having the entirety of the world’s information as just one of our thoughts.” But in the race to get to that point, Google is assured of many rivals.

As always, the reality that Google is a de facto government startup and continuing operation partnered with DARPA & NASA in their pursuits of “cognitive” “self-aware” artificial god intelligence (AGI) is a non-issue in the lengthy report. And the same can be said about how Google executives consistently talk about the goal of Google is to gather and understand “all of the worlds information”.

Google co-founder Sergei Brin discusses the Google+NASA partnership and AI:

Considering the totality of all human knowledge accessible thru the various mediums -the notion of the systems that archive all of it- understanding it all sounds pretty insane to me. But even if the AGI notion is decades off, the Ruling Establishment having such power over us and our privacy is enough to prompt questioning and critiques of not just the proponents of such, but more importantly the system of power that already rules us all.


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