Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, is now concerned that the net has become more powerful than even he believed possible

An interview with Tim Berners-Lee recently highlighted his belief that the web needs to be studied scientifically as a source of potential emergent behaviours. Emergence is usually considered a threat, where a complex system can exhibit behaviour that was unpexted, because of unexpected complex interactions among system components. In nature, 50 year waves happen because of the rare(every 50 years at a particular place) interaction of waves coming from different directions, and they can sink ships. On the web, waves of information can bring down servers and even large sections of the net. But it isn’t just waves that can casue problems. The internet is a very multidimensional entity, and indeed, even the world wide web is only one of the services running on it, albeit arguably the most important one.

Studying emergence will be a valuable activity, but it is hard to see how it can really work. The 10^11 web pages are important, and to some degree, human interaction with them could be predicted using psychological theory. However, the behaviour of the human is influenced not just by the immediate web page, but by their entire personality, and every experience, every interaction on and off the net. How can that ever be modelled and studied? I might look at a web site and the most important result of the interaction might be an idea it initiates in my mind, rather than anything immediately to do with the site. A dotcom might result once in a while, for some people anyway, even if not for me.

I think there are several different areas of emergence that will need to be studied, ir they can. Firstly, there is the area of information flow, connected to PC and server activity too. It might be possible for example to use the net to generate information waves that could crash telecom networks by setting up physical resonances and correlated traffic peaks. These could be a more dangerous part of cyber-warfare than the viruses and worms of today.

Secondly, we need to think about the human emergence. Occasionally, wonderful new ideas happen as a result of human interactions, and the web creates a superb platform on which to initiate and carry these interactions. But harmful ideas can also emerge. A person with ill-intent may be exposed to new ideas or technology via the web that leads them to a new type of crime, or a new security threat. Similarly, exposing people en-masse to global ideas, religions, ideologies and so on, will inevitably cause problems as well as solutions.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to look hard at the potential of the net to act as a platform for machine-initiated threats, such as machine consciousness. Much is made of the equivalence of net-based processing or connections and that in the human brain. Actually, the might of all the networked PCs greatly exceeds a single human brain now, and of course it increases exponentially. Eventually, people (I think students probably) will be tempted to use the net for experiments in producing machine consciousness, perhaps by hijacking networks of games consoles (on which security seems to be a lesser consideration than on PCs). With the new termainator film in the cinemas, it is hard not to think in Terminator Scenario terms once the true prospect of machine intelligence comes over the horizon.

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Personally, I don’t believe digital processors of any design can become conscious, but that is more an act of faith than science. However, the net can also link analog processors together. Adaptive analog neurons can certainly be used to achieve concsciousness. They are the basis of the brain. As neuroscience progresses exponentially quickly in conjunction with nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and AI, engineers will get closer and closer to realising such a dream. Net based emergence offers a potentially magnifying effect, allowing interactions to achieve effects by accident well ahead of the science being well enough advanced to do so deliberately. That is the basis of the Terminator films, and is unfortunately just as valid in the real world.

So, not for the first time, Tim Berners Lee has hit the nail on the head. We need web science, we need it now, and we need to do it as well as we can.