Often recurring theme in sci-fi stories is alien hive with a collective mind. Through some fantastical mean, be it innate or created by high-tech devices, these aliens form a super-mind and are able to communicate with each other in ease and share their thoughts and feelings with others. They often use this to their advantage and function more or less as a one single entity, with multiple physical bodies.
What makes this interesting is how relation of neurons and brain is similar (at least on a superficial level) to relation of termites and their colony. Single neuron isn’t particularly useful or smart, but bunch of them firing together still somehow manage to give rise to very complex cognitive abilities. Same can be said about termites. Alone a single termite isn’t going to create anything spectacular, but when there are huge amount of them, suddenly they’re able to build rather complex structures. And as far as I know, there isn’t a single foreman termite with neat blueprints telling others where to go and what to build. Their behaviour and results of it are emergent.
Now, same can be said about thoughts. Neurons are relatively simple and there isn’t master neuron that acts as a primus motor. They just listen to their input lines, occasinally firing their output line based on some thereshold that inputs need to cross (I’m pretty sure I’m glossing over details here, but the basic premise should be correct enough). And yet, somehow firing of neurons can represent images, sounds, smells, memories, thoughts and so on. They can easily ponder on what-ifs and how-abouts, creating alternativies where current state of the world is altered and then reason how situation could continue from there.
Now, this sounds interesting and all that, but what does it has to do with transhumanism?
The fact is that we already have technology for this and we’re (or at least some of us) are using it every day, almost all the time. And name of that technology is of course internet. One could go as far as arguing that it’s one of the most defining inventions of modern times and has shaped humanity in ways that are hard to grasp on a first thought. For example, when I started tinkering with programming, a huge burden was placed on my memory. There were countless of things to memorize and I had to consciously (or less consciously) make choices what was worth learning and memorizing and what I should skip. Now that I have easy access to internet, its forums and search engines, situation has changed drastically. I don’t have to memorize small details from books anymore, but I can just form a high-level schematics in my mind and fill in the details and blanks from internet when I need them.
Internet is trove of information treasures that awaits plundering and the resources aren’t limited to programming and computers. Take any hobby or avenue of life and it’s likely that internet contains something for it. Hobbyists and professionals alike are documenting their particular interests and uploading it for others to use. This means both that it’s easier than ever to get information and also that speed the information spreads has never been so high. All this has to affect how we think and process information and adapting to the constant dataflow hasn’t been easy one.
Let us get back to brains and termites. What if we viewed our fancy information super-highway as very elaborate brain structure? Each individual person accessing to it would function sort of like a neuron, receiving inputs from other people and in turn sending their own signals forward. Would this mean that on some level internet already forms a huge, complex neural network that might be capable of processing complex information and not just storing it? What if transcending humanity actually means that there will be a super-intelligent, partly artificial, partly biological being that inhabits most of the planet (as maybe even some space around it)?
The big question is, would we know that? Or would we just happily go around in our daily life, doing our stuff and processing signals without further thought to their real meaning? Neuron certainly doesn’t care what thoughts it’s currently processing. It’s not capable of seeing the overall structure of the brain, let alone understand what kind of problem it’s currently solving. Same can be said for termites. It’s all in complex interplay of various mechanisms and resulting emergent behaviour. Are we going to be part of the super AI, without ever noticing it?