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June 17, 2008

As a little boy learning to read, I remember encountering a comics character named ESBoy in one local comics mag. He was a boy with a head so big, because his brain was extra large, it tilted to one side all the time. The first letters ESB meant electronic super brain. The boy was supposed to know all the answers to every imaginable question in this world. You know it when you’re young, you believe anything is possible. Then you outgrow the fantasy as you mature. But it seems childhood fantasies would come revisit in strange ways. He’s not a boy or a person but a configuration of interconnected computer machines we today call  internet or the  web. Try. Think of any inquiry. Just about any: from philosophical questions like what is consciousness, to mundane like a recipe for bopis, the habits of ants, etc. or to any complicated mathematical formula.   If you know how to search, you are likely to find an answer— from the ridiculous to the sublime. Now, I was about forming the idea into a blog entry when I stumbled on this article:

We Are The Web

In the beginning there was Vannebar Bush who outlined the idea of hyperlinked pages, then a Ted Nelson who has a scheme of organizing and hyperlinking all of humanity’s knowledge. This was the genesis of a system that has since morphed into a part-human-part-machine thinking process. As any new technology, first it was mocked at and disparaged but when the floodgates in 1995 were opened, the bursting abundance was totally unexpected. Ten years since, “(i)n fewer than 4,000 days, we have encoded half a trillion versions of our collective story and put them in front of 1 billion people…”

Today, at any Net terminal, you can get: an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the globe, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers – all wrapped up in an interactive index that really works.

This view is spookily godlike.

The idea that was thought insane a decade or so ago became a collaborative project of the whole humanity. A super brain machine is in the making, “… a megacomputer that encompasses the Internet, all its services, all peripheral chips and affiliated devices from scanners to satellites, and the billions of human minds entangled in this global network.”

Today, the Machine acts like a very large computer with top-level functions that operate at approximately the clock speed of an early PC. It processes 1 million emails each second, which essentially means network email runs at 1megahertz. Same with Web searches. Instant messaging runs at 100 kilohertz, SMS at 1kilohertz. The Machine’s total external RAM is about 200 terabytes. In any one second, 10 terabits can be coursing through its backbone, and each year it generates nearly 20 exabytes of data. Its distributed “chip” spans 1 billion active PCs, which is approximately the number of transistors in one PC.

This planet-sized computer is comparable in complexity to a human brain. Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages). Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks. That adds up to a trillion “synapses” between the static pages on the Web. The human brain has about 100 times that number – but brains are not doubling in size every few years. The Machine is.

The whole article is here.

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