Monday, March 31, 2008

The intelligent web -- or not

It used to be a staple of science fiction and futurology that as computers got bigger and faster, they would get smarter. That hasn't exactly panned out in any clear-cut or linear way. Computers can certainly do all sorts of useful things that they couldn't before, including tasks that have at various times been considered part of "Artificial Intelligence", but there are certainly a whole lot of big, fast, dumb computers out there.

Well, maybe it's not so important for computers to be big and fast, so long as they're well enough connected. Perhaps, with ridiculous amounts of computing power attached to the web, a sort of distributed consciousness will emerge. This idea can be seen floating in the same general vicinity as the idea of a "semantic web", though I don't believe that's what the semantic web is about in any significant way.

In any case, web-connected computers these days seem to keep mostly to themselves. Generally my computer and most likely yours will act as a client to a server somewhere, communicating in a very carefully-delimited way to fetch some piece of information for a human user (the weather report, sport scores, email from other people). This information is generally either cached for a person to look at later, or simply thrown away.

Well what do you expect? It's people who are writing the applications and people who are using them, after all.

There are a few cases of large numbers of desktop computers working together to achieve a common goal. I'm thinking SETI@home or GIMPS, for example. In these cases, someone has written special software for a particular application, complete with hand-crafted communication code. It's not like my desktop computer got the idea that it and yours should go off and try to factor large primes. In fact, it's very much not like it. Pretty much the opposite.

Intelligence is a lot of things, ranging from well-defined tasks that computers are good at, like remembering what just happened, to less well-understood facilities like judging whether someone is lying or learning a natural language by immersion. Try to even define "consciousness" and you're in for a machete-worthy trip through the philosophical wilds.

Only a few of these things we call intelligence are directly applicable to, or useful in, the web as a whole. That's not to say they wouldn't be useful on a small scale. A truly smart SPAM filter would make someone very rich (maybe even the person who wrote it). But that's quite a different thing from "the web" being able to filter SPAM.

Put another way, we don't really interact with the web as a whole. Even when searching the web for knowledge, we interact with a search engine that treats the web as a huge pile of passive information. We don't ask the web for answers. We ask a search engine. A particular application can be smart, and I'd argue that it can be smart in a meaningful way without doing anything magical or particularly hard to explain, but that's an application, not the web.

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