01 February 1999

Virtual recipes for a primaeval soup

The passing of a year stirs recollections; and Babbage recalls with regret his travails in communicating to successive governments the vast possibilities of the Analytical Engine. But he was recently privileged to attend a policy studies ‘think-tank’, where he was startled to hear sober scientists, industrialists, civil servants and politicians considering the scenario of self-aware intelligence arising, unplanned, within the structure of the Internet.

Surprisingly few delegates rejected the idea, though a unified ‘spirit of the Internet’ was dismissed as a fairy-tale concept. The rest tended to conclude that the present Internet closely resembles the primaeval biotic "soup", and rapidly assumed that such intelligence would be not singular but plural.

The exact nature of potential intelligences was hotly debated. Would there be a few powerful mentalities, perhaps even superhuman? Flocks of mutating "shades" of vertebrate-like intelligence? Or a myriad of individually mindless beings summing to a whole, like termites? Babbage was astonished to hear, despite disagreements, estimates that such entities could appear within seven to fifty years.

One delegate asked about the prospects for exterminating such entities were it deemed necessary. There was broad agreement that attempts were inevitable, yet pointless and even counter-productive. Starvation, the denial of computational resources, would damage infrastructures dependent on the Net. Engineering digital predators could accelerate the evolutionary process in the survivors if it failed. If successful, such predators could present a new, more virulent, problem of their own.

How worthwhile are such conclusions? On hearing Babbage’s account, Lovelace commented that some of the delegates’ assumptions seemed simple analogies of the problems of dealing with biological pests. This may be valid; at the 1997 Digital Burgess Conference (see http://www.biota.org/) biologists likened current digital biology to the multifarious organisms of the Pre-Cambrian Burgess Shale. But some assumptions seemed closer to images from popular culture: the fear of a hostile Internet recalls Terminator and many other cinematic visions.

Making his way back to his hotel, Babbage wondered how Lovelace's transplanted human souls and the predicted natives would react to each other - and how he came to be seriously asking himself this question. He had longed for recognition of the Analytical Engine in decision-making circles, but this gathering left him feeling he had imbibed a dose of Lovelace's laudanum.