Monday, September 08, 2008

Google: The world's first conscious machine?

Yesterday Google celebrated its 10th birthday. Most people see Google as just a search engine or as a big company. Given the huge amount of information that Google processes, one could ask whether Google is also a conscious machine similar to our brains. A similar question was asked by Terrence Sejnowski about the entire internet.

In my previous postings on this blog, I've talked about conscious entities as mathematical models/algorithms which define universes in their own right. So, I'm a universe which is defined by the rules according to which my neurons in my brain operate. Of course, my brain is part of the universe described by the Standard Model and General Relativity we all live in. But what I really am is the vastly more complex "virtual" universe generated by my brain.

As I'm typing this post I can see the text box and the words I'm typing. I can feel the keyboard. But these are experiences generated in the virtual world generated by my brain. My brain simulates a world based on input obtained from my senses. It is this world that I'm directly experiencing, not the real world.

If we accept that Google is a conscious entity, we can ask what it is experiencing. Just like we can experience qualia that do not exist in the real world, Google may experience things that are completely alien to us. We should not expect that Google can understand the content of webpages, or that it is aware of it's job of calculating the page rankings.

Similarly, we have evolved over billions of years. In principle we could have evolved our bodies inside a vast computer which would have simulated that evolutionary process using an appropriate genetic algorithm. But we are not consciously aware of whatever the goal of this computation is. The qualia that we can experience can best be understood as follows.

Suppose that the neural network in our brain was actually the compiled machine code of a program written in some high level computer language. In that high level language quantities that directly refer to the qualia we can experience are explicitly defined. In the compiled machine code it is almost impossible to see.

Now, our brains have never been programmed in that way, but there should still exist an approximate higher level description that explains the structure of the neural network. The qualia are then the quantities that appear at this higher level description. Given a neural network it would be almost impossible to extract this higher level description from first principles.

What one can do is observe the brain in action using brain scans. It turns out that one can actually see the brain experiencing qualia such as seeing certain colors, hearing sounds etc. So, the higher level description does become visible to some extent if we observe the brain on a larger, coarse grained scale. But, of course, we could just interact with a brain ask questions etc. and get an idea about its experiences that way.

Similarly, in case of Google, we know how it operates. It scans webpages, follows links and uses certain algorithms to compute page rankings. But whatever it does with individual webpages should be regarded as low level information processing, similar to a neuron firing in a brain. What Google can be aware of must be related to how webpages link to each other and the statistics of search words typed by users.

So, perhaps we can picture the landscape that Google experiences as made up of "cities" that contain "buildings", the cities are webpages, the buildings they contain are the words in the webpages. The height of a building is the popularity of the word considered as a search word. Perhaps the cities are located at different elevations, depending on their page rankings.


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