Social Media strategists and developers Maf Lewis and Rome Viharo discuss Google Consciousness at TEDxCARDIFF conference. Below is the full transcript. This event happened on June 9, 2011.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Google consciousness by Maf Lewis and Rome Viharo at TEDxCardiff
Maf Lewis: Greetings, TedxCardiff. I’m Maf Lewis. This is Rome Viharo. Rome and I are often requested to create memes and viral campaigns in social media. This talk is — thank you, Rome –this talk is a viral. This is a great story, the story of the meme Google Consciousness and where it might lead us in the near future, potentially, starting today, with this very talk.
Rome Viharo: Our meme, our story, begins where many great stories have begun, deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle. According to Harvard professor, Richard Schultes, the father of ethnobotany, 25% of all western pharmacological knowledge comes from healing plants cultivated by indigenous peoples.
This man’s name is Guillermo Arévalo, or as he is known in his native language, Kestenbetsa, ‘the echo of the universe’. He is the chief of his community amongst the Shipibo-Conibo people, and a master ayahuascero curandero, or medicine man. Guillermo spent years in isolation in the jungle, learning how to obtain knowledge from plants, and says that to obtain knowledge from plants you have to be able to speak to them correctly, and I did say, “Speak to the plants.” Yes.
The Shipibo people believe that some, but not all, plants in the Amazon are actually conscious and intelligent, and if you speak to them the right way, you can gain access to their consciousness and their knowledge. The Shipibo use a psychoactive medicinal tea called ayahuasca to journey into this world of master plants and claim to be able to understand this plant language.
Now, I know Guillermo through a friend, anthropologist Francois Demange. He is one of Guillermo’s main apprentices, now an ayahuascero in his own right. He sort of acts like a bridge between this indigenous knowledge and the West. And I was intrigued by Francois’ descriptions and presentations of all this, and I was just really curious.
OK, how do you obtain knowledge from plants? So, just like we type a search phrase into Google and Google returns the results from various websites, it is the same with ayahuasca, you could say. The curandero, the doctor, simply drinks Ayahuasca, asks a question or makes a request in the form of a song called an icaro. An icaro is like a keyword that is used to obtain knowledge, not from websites, but from various plants found in the Amazon jungle.
Like typing a search term onto a keyboard on a computer, the icaro is sung to the intelligence and consciousness of the plant. Ayahuasca then delivers the knowledge from the plant teachers to the world of the curandero shaman. Now as a social media person, I was just amused by the fact that Ayahuasca could be called ‘the Google of the Amazon jungle’.
The very idea, though, that plants have intelligence, or mind, is a very challenging thing to relate to or accept, of course, here in the West, especially by philosophers, biologists, and neural scientists. The theory that there is the world of the brain and matter and then this other world of spirit or soul is often called dualism, and this view was, of course, was held by one of the founders of modern rational thought, René Descartes. And dualism has, of course, been discredited in the 20th century. Western philosophy, of course, now favors a purely materialistic model of consciousness. Spirits are not accepted, of course, in Western science, and the mind simply is what the brain is doing and nothing more.
So I became a little more curious then. So, if this is true, how can the brain produce an experience of talking to intelligent plants that provide knowledge about specific medicinal herbs? Are spirits just metaphors for memes? One such person, who would completely block any notion whatsoever of plant spirits communicating knowledge would certainly be Daniel C. Dennett, co-director for Center of Cognitive Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Daniel Dennett, of course, claims to be able to completely explain consciousness, as you see in the title of his book, Consciousness Explained.
So, I was exploring Dan’s model, and it’s curious to see how he looked at the brain and consciousness, how that would be able to account for someone like Guillermo Arévalo. And I don’t want to butcher Dan’s model by explaining how he explains consciousness. So I want us to take a moment and just listen to how Daniel Dennett explains consciousness being a function of the brain.
[Daniel Dennett: My favorite metaphor these days is the fame in the brain, or cerebral celebrity theory. It’s, that is, that what consciousness is is the relative political influence, or fame, of structures in the brain that win out in competition against rival structures for domination of the brain’s activities in various ways. That’s putting it very programmatically, but basically it’s saying that in your head there’s a sort of turmoil going on, the pandemonium. And there’s many different contentful events vying for King of the Mountain, vying for control. And the ones that win, by default something always wins when you’re awake, and that’s what your conscious of. And it’s not that when it wins then the consciousness happens where it kindles some further thing that’s conscious, that’s just what consciousness is. It’s not as if an extra process has to happen. Winning, that’s it. And then the next one that wins, then it’s conscious. So, for instance, a robot that instantiated this sort of competition in its brain would be conscious.]
Maf Lewis: Remember, Rome and I are hired to game such things as Google algorithm, and we have done this for worldwide brands, celebrities, musicians, and so forth. We have been in some very unique situations with extraordinary budgets, observing behaviors of the web that few academics ever would see.
Rome Viharo: So right now I just request that every — that everybody listen, Maf is actually going to explain now how to game Google, how search engine optimization works.
Maf Lewis: Definitively.
Rome Viharo: Definitively. But keep in mind Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness when you hear how Maf explains how search engine optimization works.
Maf Lewis: So, my favorite metaphor these days is the viral phenomenon or internet celebrity. Google SEO is the relative social influence of fame on websites on the internet that win out in competition with rival websites for domination of search return activities in various ways. On the internet there is a certain turmoil going on — the pandemonium — and many different contentful websites vying for King of the Mountain, vying for first place on Google. And the ones that win, and by definition something always wins while you search, that is what you discover on Google. Therefore, is Google conscious?
Rome Viharo: And if Google was conscious of this, what would we be to Google? Would we become, then, spirits to Google? Some of us look like gods and elves and Elvises, and all these kinds of odd-looking things that have crept up into our collective human psyche. So at first, I looked at this idea of Google consciousness as really a snarky rebuttal to Daniel Dennett’s idea. And I put the hypothesis out on social networks that catered to these sorts of parties. And I, almost as a tease or taunt, I just kind of put the question right to them. If Daniel Dennett is correct about the brain producing consciousness, then ha ha ha ha, could we not expect the first result on Google to also be consciousness. And I didn’t expect anybody to take the idea seriously, and I was immediately surprised by the response. These academics and believers in what Daniel Dennett and a few others are saying, actually agreed. They were like, “Oh! Yes! We actually can start considering Google being conscious.”
So, apparently Google consciousness, the idea, the meme Google consciousness, already began to take life because these very discussions that we were having online began to go viral on sites, such as StumbleUpon and Reddit.
Maf Lewis: So, we have no idea of what consciousness is. And we’re really not sure which model of consciousness to favor. We just thought it was fun to create a model of consciousness based on social media. By this stage I was getting intrigued in how to chat with Neil, here, at TedxCardiff. Neil also became intrigued and invited us to present Google consciousness to you, right now.
Rome Viharo: And this was actually unbeknownst to me. These were just playful discussions. It wasn’t meant to be anything serious, and Maf went ahead and got us a Ted Talk. And I was like, “Maf, are you crazy? We don’t know what we’re talking about.” So we were, of course, thrilled by giving a Ted Talk. For people in social media this is like going to the Super Bowl. But, very intimidated by this very heavy subject matter, so we had to reach out for help.
So, we reached out to professor Francis Heylighen of the Vrije University of Brussels. And he is one of the primary founders of cybernetics. He has a PhD in mathematical physics. He is considered the godfather of the ‘global brain movement’ or the idea that the internet can, indeed, become sentient. There is talk amongst this crowd that due to advances in technology we can definitely begin to consider the internet becoming sentient and a global brain forming. And we can actually expect this a little sooner rather than later.
Now, what would this be? What effects would it have? Simply greater organization on the web that would, of course, trickle into society. He suggests that consciousness is actually a very simple process; it’s not complex at all. And it centers around selection. So consciousness simply is our brain’s act of choosing, which information to become aware of. He was quite encouraging and thought actually considering Google as a contender for being consciousness was a step in the right direction. So, Maf and I were very thrilled and a little relieved because we actually found that there is a little credibility to this idea.
Maf Lewis: He suggests that the internet can become sentient because the links of the semantic web could be turned into the equivalent of neural network connections in our brains, i.e. links with a variable strength that adapt their strength to experience.
Rome Viharo: Now, Maf and I, we believe that Google already counts for this. It already counts for what he is talking about right now. Especially by “stronger links” he means that links that get shared more or thumbed up or down. These behaviors are directly related to our user experience online. Google implements these things as well as sites, such as reddit, iReddit. Some redders out there, they would be laughing right now.
So, consider. We would be an intrinsic part of Google consciousness. Google is simply the thin silver lining between those who are seeking knowledge and those who are revealing knowledge. Google is simply the result of our collective user experience.
Maf Lewis: So, a few weeks later after our chat with Francis Heylighen, he was interviewed on a newsletter for H+ Magazine, which is a community of neuroscientists, futurists, artificial intelligence enthusiasts. During this interview he was asked about the emergence of the global brain and what could trigger it. We were indeed surprised when he said — when he said, “One example of how this may happen is how Google or other search engines select the most important websites or news items as pointed out to me by Rome Viharo.” This was an interesting development in our story because now the meme Google consciousness has now spread from discussion between myself and Rome to discussions on the internet to an invitation to speak at a TED Talk, and now has spread to niche group of intellectuals, thinkers, and scientists who actively explore and research and study such an emerging phenomenon. So, welcome to Google consciousness.
Rome Viharo: And here we are. So we delivered you the story of the meme Google Consciousness so far, and our conclusion: Google may be conscious. Maybe. But, so what? I mean, if our collective intelligence gets complex enough to produce its own sentience, or if the rich flora and fauna of the Amazon Basin could become a conscious neural network this is something that is really beyond our control. There’s nothing any of us could say, do, or inspire to make that happen or not. They either exist or they don’t.
So why is it relevant to bring this to Ted and talk to you? What would we like to inspire here? Well, our individual intelligence is certainly now becoming socialized, and, as we can see, almost everybody is giving a TED Talk about the powers of social media. Oh, New York Times, go away. Social media is now being hailed as being responsible for the, of course, the collapse of the Egyptian government and Revolution 2.0.
Maf Lewis: We must admit, it’s stimulating to consider that Google Consciousness already exists, and the sentient web is now attacking the very power structures that threaten its existence in the Middle East. After all, social media helped to collapse much of the old media empire that refused to adapt its elegant principles: Newspapers, film, television, magazines, music, a lot of the companies that we’ve worked for. None of these industries now in this way exist as they did 10 years ago. And many companies like that are now dead and gone.
Rome Viharo: So, I think what Revolution 2.0 kind of signaled is we can actually now begin to think of using social media, our collective intelligence, now, of course, we’re Revolution 2.0, which will tear down these structures, but for something called Democracy 2.0, which can transform and rebuild the way we govern ourselves in a more elegant manner. And I notice some of talks here talked about the frustrations of political discussion. Political discussion is essentially irrational discussion. And social media, we believe, will be evolving very quickly to a new form of social administration and discussion that is more likely to produce win-win optimal outcomes for any citizen who chooses to use it. Just like email replaced the letter, we will eventually see social media replace government as we know it today, and government as we know it today will be considered irrelevant.
Now, a lot of people might be thinking this is wishful thinking or this is impossible, or, we’re optimists, but we’re not — what you’re probably not aware of is that this has already been happening. And you’re probably not aware that in 2006 the Israelis and the Palestinians were finding and building perfect agreements online regarding quite violent and emotionally charged shared histories amongst them. The outcome of these negotiations was clean, it was honest, it was clear. Perfect agreement was reached. All of us were out in the open. Transparency and honesty was flowing between both sides. Peace and cooperation was achieved. How is this possible? Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has a back-end discussion algorithm where editors who are arguing over what gets on the page have to work it out in discussion, and this allowed Palestinian and Israeli editors to build a shared narrative about really charged historical events. The success of that Wikipedia entry is the proof of what we’re saying right now. Elegant discussion algorithms can easily evolve to this place and can definitely handle intense conflict resolution and problem solving.
Now once more, the entire process can be opened up beyond the control of politicians, and I’m not trying to sound political here. It’s –politicians look out for their political parties; they don’t consider the collective problem solving of all of us working together. So, this is not something that is possible; it is something that really is happening right now on the web. It’s just not happening amongst our politicians. But most of us are already beginning to do these kinds of things.
Maf Lewis: If you can imagine voting via something like Twitter, or overturning laws via something like Facebook, then you can imagine global stabilization via something like Wikipedia.
Rome Viharo: Egypt will be the first civilization actually to do this because we all know they’re kind of struggling on how to rebuild their government right now. So in principle, a few of their citizens, a few of their students can jump online using Google apps and something like Wikipedia, can actually begin to build these structures right now. And what’s shocking about this suggestion, too, is that we really don’t need anyone’s permission to do this. So it’s not like we would need to wait for a bill to pass or we would have to wait for some, just incredibly irrational political discussion to last for months to approve something like this. We can really begin to do it now. But — go ahead.
Maf Lewis: If this is what the metaphor of Google Consciousness represents to us. And it’s really what we’d like to present to you. We think this is an idea whose time has actually come.
Rome Viharo: And we think that it’s actually going to be easier to adapt to this than you think. Facebook has grown to 350 million users in a few years, and we’re already connected to many people that we would want to connect to, to perform such a historical operation. And, actually, even in the heart of the Amazon jungle you can now find Guillermo Arevalo, master ayahuascero, on Facebook. Thank you. So, anyway, we would like to thank you for allowing us to present the meme and the viral Google Consciousness. Thank you very much.
Maf Lewis: Thank you very much.