This article proposes the creation of a new open, nonprofit service on the Web that will provide something akin to “collective self-awareness” back to the Web. This service is like a "Google Zeitgeist" on steroids, but with a lot more real-time, interactive, participatory data, technology and features in it. The goal is to measure and visualize the state of the collective mind of humanity, and provide this back to humanity in as close to real-time as is possible, from as many data sources as we can handle -- as a web service.
By providing this service, we will enable higher levels of collective intelligence to emerge and self-organize on the Web. The key to collective intelligence (or any intelligence in fact) is self-awareness. Self-awareness is, in essence, a feedback loop in which a system measures its own internal state and the state of its environment, then builds a representation of that state, and then reasons about and reacts to that representation in order to generate future behavior. This feedback loop can be provided to any intelligent system -- even the Web, even humanity as-a-whole. If we can provide the Web with such a service, then the Web can begin to “see itself” and react to its own state for the first time. And this is the first step to enabling the Web, and humanity as-a-whole, to become more collectively intelligent.
It should be noted that by "self-awareness" I don’t mean consciousness or sentience – I think that the consciousness comes from humans at this point and we are not trying to synthesize it (we don't need to; it's already there). Instead, by "self-awareness" I mean a specific type of feedback loop -- a specific Web service -- that provides a mirror of the state of the whole back to its parts. The parts are the conscious elements of the system – whether humans and/or machines – and can then look at this meta-mirror to understand the whole as well as their place in it. By simply providing this meta-level mirror, along with ways that the individual parts of the system can report their state to it, and get the state of the whole back from it, we can enable a richer feedback loop between the parts and the whole. And as soon as this loop exists the entire system suddenly can and will become much more collectively intelligent.
What I am proposing is something quite common in artificial intelligence. For example, in the field of robotics, such as when building an autonomous robot. Until a robot is provided with a means by which it can sense its own internal state and the state of its nearby environment, it cannot behave intelligently or very autonomously. But once this self-representation and feedback loop is provided, it can then react to it’s own state and environment and suddenly can behave far more intelligently. All cybernetic systems rely on this basic design pattern. I’m simply proposing we implement something like this for the entire Web and the mass of humanity that is connected to it. It's just a larger application of an existing pattern. Currently people get their views of “the whole” from the news media and the government – but these views suffer from bias, narrowness, lack of granularity, lack of real-time data, and the fact that they are one-way, top-down services with no feedback loop capabilities. Our global collective self-awareness -- in order to be truly useful and legitimate really must be two-way, inclusive, comprehensive, real-time and democratic. In the global collective awareness, unlike traditional media, the view of the whole is created in a bottom-up, emergent fashion from the sum of the reports from all the parts (instead of just a small pool of reporters or publishers, etc.).
The system I envision would visualize the state of the global mind on a number of key dimensions, in real-time, based on what people and software and organizations that comprise its “neurons” and “regions” report to it (or what it can figure out by mining artifacts they create). For example, this system would discover and rank the current most timely and active topics, current events, people, places, organizations, events, products, articles, websites, in the world right now. From these topics it would link to related resources, discussions, opinions, etc. It would also provide a real-time mass opinion polling system, where people could start polls, vote on them, and see the results in real-time. And it would provide real-time statistics about the Web, the economy, the environment, and other key indicators.
The idea is to try to visualize the global mind – to make it concrete and real for people, to enable them to see what it is thinking, what is going on, and where they fit in it – and to enable them to start adapting and guiding their own behavior to it. By giving the parts of the system more visibility into the state of the whole, they can begin to self-organize collectively which in turn makes the whole system function more intelligently
Essentially I am proposing the creation of the largest and most sophisticated mirror ever built – a mirror that can reflect the state of the collective mind of humanity back to itself. This will enable an evolutionary process which eventually will result in humanity becoming more collectively self-aware and intelligent as-a-whole (instead of what it is today -- just a set of separeate interacting intelligent parts). By providing such a service, we can catalyze the evolution of higher-order meta-intelligence on this planet -- the next step in human evolution. Creating this system is a grand cultural project of profound social value to all people on earth, now and in the future.
This proposal calls for creating a nonprofit orgnaization to build and host this service as a major open-source initiative on the Web, like the Wikipedia, but with a very different user-experience and focus. It also calls for implementing the system with a hybrid central and distributed architecture. Although this vision is big, the specific technologies, design patterns, and features that are necessary to implement it are quite specific and already exist. They just have to be integrated, wrapped and rolled out. This will require an extraordinary and multidisciplanary team. If you're interested in getting involved and think you can contribute resources that this project will need, let me know (see below for details).
Today I re-read this beautiful, visionary article by Kevin Kelley, about the birth of the global mind, in which he states:
Kevin's article got me thinking once again about an idea that has been on my mind for over a decade. I have often thought that the Web is growing into the collective nervous system of our species. This will in turn enable the human species to function increasingly as an intelligent superorganism, for example, like a beehive, or an ant colony -- but perhaps even more intelligent. But the key to bringing this process about is self-awareness. In short, the planetary supermind cannot become truly intelligent until it evolves a form of collective self-awareness. Self-awareness is the most critical component of human intelligence -- the sophistication of human self-awareness is what makes humans different from dumb machines, and from less intelligent species.
The Big Idea that I have been thinking about for over a decade is that if we can build something that functions like a collective self-awareness, then this could catalyze a huge leap in collective intelligence that would essentially "wake up" the global supermind and usher in a massive evolution in its intelligence and behavior. As the planetary supermind becomes more aware of its environment, its own state, and its own actions and plans, it will then naturally evolve higher levels of collective intelligence around this core. This evolutionary leap is of unimaginable importance to the future of our species.
In order for the collective mind to think and act more intelligently it must be able to sense itself and its world, and reason about them, with more precision -- it must have a form of self-awareness. The essence of self-awareness is self-representation -- the ability to sense, map, reason about, and react to, one's own internal state and the state of one's nearby environment. In other words, self-awareness is a feedback loop by which a system measures and reacts to its own self-representations. Just as is the case with the evolution of individual human intelligence, the evolution of more sophisticated collective human intelligence will depend on the emergence of better collective feedback loops and self-representations. By enabling a feedback loop in which information can flow in both directions between the self-representations of individuals and a meta-level self-representation for the set of all individuals, the dynamics of the parts and the whole become more closely coupled. And when this happens, the system can truly start to adapt to itself intelligently, as a single collective intelligence instead of a collection of single intelligences.
In summary, in order to achieve higher levels of collective intelligence and behavior, the global mind will first need something that functions as its collective self-awareness -- something that enables the parts to better sense and react to the state of the whole, and the whole to better sense and react to the state of its parts. What is needed essentially is something that functions as a collective analogue to a self -- a global collective self.
Think of the global self as a vast mirror, reflecting the state of the global supermind back to itself. Mirrors are interesting things. At first they merely reflect, but soon they begin to guide decisionmaking. By simply providing humanity with a giant virtual mirror of what is going on across the minds of billions of individuals, and millions of groups and organizations, the collective mind will crystallize, see itself for the first time, and then it will begin to react to its own image. And this is the beginning of true collective cognition. When the parts can see themselves as a whole and react in real-time, then they begin to function as a whole instead of just a collection of separate parts. As this shift transpires the state of the whole begins to feedback into the behavior of the parts, and the state of the parts in turns feeds back to the state of the whole. This cycle of bidirectional feedback between the parts and whole is the essence of cognition in all intelligent systems, whether individual brains, artificial intelligences, or entire worlds.
I believe that the time has come for this collective self to emerge on our planet. Like a vast virtual mirror, it will function as the planetary analogue to our own individual self-representations -- that capacity of our individual minds which represents us back to ourselves. It will be comprised of maps that combine real-time periodic data updates, and historical data, from perhaps trillions of data sources (one for each person, group, organization and software agent on the grid). The resulting visualizations will be something like a vast fluid flow, or a many particle simulation. It will require a massive computing capability to render it -- perhaps a distributed supercomputer comprised of the nodes on the Web themselves, each hosting a part of the process. It will require new thinking about how to visualize trends in such vast amounts of data and dimensions. This is a great unexplored frontier in data visualization and knowledge discovery.
How It Might Work
I envision the planetary self functioning as a sort of portal -- a Web service that aggregates and distributes all kinds of current real-time and historical data about the state of the whole, as well as its past states and future projected states. This portal would collect opinions, trends, and statistics about the human global mind, the environment, the economy, society, geopolitical events, and other indicators, and would map them graphically in time, geography, demography, and subject space -- enabling everyone to see and explore the state of the global mind from different perspectives, with various overlays, and at arbitrary levels of magnification.
I think this system should provide an open data model, and open API for adding and growing data sets, querying, remixing, visualizing, and subscribing to the data. All services that provide data sets, analysis or visualizations (or other interpretations) of potential value to understanding the state of the whole would be able to post data into our service for anyone to find and use. Search engines could post in the top search query terms. Sites that create tag clouds could post in tags and tag statistics. Sites that analyze the blogosphere could post in statistics about blogs, bloggers, and blog posts. Organizations that do public opinion polling, market and industry research, trend analysis, social research, or economic research could post in statistics they are generating. Academic researchers could post in statistics generated by projects they are doing to analyze trends on the Web, or within our data-set itself.
As data is pushed to us, or pulled by us, we would grow the largest central data repository about the state of the whole. Others could then write programs to analyze and remix our data, and then post their results back into the system for others to use as well. We would make use of our data for our own analysis, but anyone else could also do research and share their analysis through our system. End users and others could also subscribe to particular data, reports, or visualizations from our service, and could post in their own individual opinions, attention data feeds, or other inputs. We would serve as a central hub for search, analysis, and distribution of collective self-awareness.
The collective self would provide a sense of collective identity: who are we, how do we appear, what are we thinking about, what do we think about what we are thinking about, what are we doing, how well are we doing it, where are we now, where have we been, where are we going next. Perhaps it could be segmented by nation, or by age group, or by other dimensions as well to view various perspectives on these questions within it. It could gather its data by mining for it, as well as through direct push contributions from various data-sources. Individuals could even report on their own opinions, state, and activities to it if they wanted to, and these votes and data points would be reflected back in the whole in real time. Think of it as a giant emergent conversation comprised of trillions of participants, all helping to make sense of the same subject -- our global self identity -- together. It could even have real-time views that are animated and alive -- like a functional brain image scan -- so that people could see the virtual neurons and pathways in the global brain firing as they watch.
If this global self-representation existed, I would want to subscribe to it as a data feed on my desktop. I would want to run it in a dashboard in the upper right corner of my monitor -- that I could expand at any time to explore further. It would provide me with alerts when events transpired that matched my particular interests, causes, or relationships. It would solicit my opinions and votes on issues of importance and interest to me. It would simultaneously function as my window to the world, and the world's window to me. It would be my way of participating in the meta-level whole, whenever I wanted to. I could tell it my opinions about key issues, current events, problems, people, organizations, or even legislative proposals. I could tell it about the quality of life from my perspective, where I am living, in my industry and demographic niche. I could tell it about my hopes and fears for the future. I could tell it what I think is cool, or not cool, interesting or not interesting, good or bad, etc. I could tell it what news I was reading and what I think is noteworthy or important. And it would listen and learn, and take my contributions into account democratically along with those of billions of other people just like me all around the world. From this would emerge global visualizations and reports about what we are all thinking and doing, in aggregate, that I could track and respond to. Linked from these flows I could then find relevant news, conversations, organizations, people, products, services, events, and knowledge. And from all of this would emerge something greater than anything I can yet imagine -- a thought process too big for any one human mind to contain.
I want to build this. I want to build the planetary Self. I am not suggesting that we build the entire global mind, I am just suggesting that we build the part of the system that functions as its collective self-awareness. The rest of the global mind is already there, as raw potential at least, and doesn't have to be built. The Web, human minds, software agents, and organizations already exist. Their collective state just needs to be reflected in a single virtual mirror. As soon as this mirror exists they can begin to collectively self-organize and behave more intelligently, simply because they will have, for the first time, a way of measuring their collective state and behavior. Once there is a central collective self-awareness loop, the intelligence of the global mind will emerge and self-organize naturally over time. This collective self-awareness infrastructure is the central enabling technology that has to be there first for the next-leap in intelligence of the global mind to evolve.
I think this should be created as a non-profit open-source project. In fact, that is the only way that it can have legitimacy -- it must be independent of any government, cultural or commercial perspective. It must be by and for the people, as purely and cleanly as possible. My guess is that to build this properly we would need to create a distributed grid computing system to collect, compute, visualize and distribute the data -- it could be similar to SETI@Home; everyone could help host it. At the center of this grid, or perhaps in a set of supernodes, would be a vast supercomputing array that would manage the grid, do focused computations and data fusion operations. There would also need to be some serious money behind this project as well -- perhaps from major foundations and donors. This system would be a global resource of potential incalculable value to the future of human evolution. It would be a project worth funding.
My Past Writing On This Topic
A Physics of Ideas: Measuring the Physical Properties of Memes
Towards a Worldwide Database
The Metaweb: A Graph of the Future
From Semantic Web to Global Mind
The Birth of the Metaweb
Are Organizations Organisms?
From Application-Centric to Data-Centric Computing
The Human Menome Project
Other Noteworthy Projects