In 2008, NASA quietly announced the first successful test of a deep space communications network modeled on the Internet. The new software protocol was jointly developed with Google’s Vint Cerf and is being deployed on the International Space Station as a first step in what could become an Interplanetary Internet. The software protocol is an attempt to deal with the variable delays and intermittent connectivity of transmitting information through space. If you think you’ve got problems today connecting to the Internet from your smart phone or home wireless network, imagine that magnified a 1,000,000-fold when information is being shared between the Earth’s Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Today’s debate over the direction of the Internet is less concerned about space than what’s called the semantic web — a means of managing the relationships between information contained on the growing billions-upon-billions of web pages using intelligent agents. Kate Ray’s elegant and penetrating “Web 3.0” video captures the depth of the issues under discussion:
And, as we rewire the web, the web rewires our brain. Author of the Atlantic article,“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr argues that increased use and reliance upon the Internet is making us more “superficial and shallow” thinkers. Vint Cerf responds in the following video that teaching kids critical thinking is extremely important regardless of whether the source is a newspaper, magazine, friend, or the Internet:
As one anonymous blogger comments, these “revolutionary technologies” will not make people smarter or less smart, “They may make one who uses them wisely more learned.”
Increased “Web 3.0” intelligence coupled with NASA and Cerf’s enhanced communication Internet space protocols raises the intriguing possibilities of a “cosmic Internet” discussed in a recent article in the Daily Galaxy that starts to cross over into the realm of Vernor Vinge’s well-known SF novel, A Fire Upon the Deep. Vinge imagines a galaxy-wide "Net of a Million Lies," where different species are moving upwards through a series of "zones of thought" as their technology becomes more sophisticated. To achieve such a network, as the Galaxy article points out, “…we will need to use a lot of power – as much as the entire power of the Sun. A civilization able to do that kind of cosmic engineering is referred to as Kardashev Type II, or KT-II.” The power source for this civilization would be a Class B stellar engine — that is, the Sun itself. This would make our current feeble attempts to harness solar energy seem but a grain of sand on the beach of the possible.
Physicist Freeman Dyson is one of the few people who’s considered the possibilities at such a scale. His “Dyson spheres” would consist of a system of orbiting solar power satellites meant to surround a star and capture most or all of its energy output. Computer scientist Robert Bradbury took the concept of Dyson spheres and proposed nesting them inside one another like Russian matrioshka or babushka dolls using nanoscale computers — creating essentially a giant brain. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, inventor Ray Kurzweil, and others speculate that an advanced civilization may have already created such a brain, and that we humans are simply simulations running inside it.
Is the NASA Interplanetary Internet program the seed of such an enterprise?
“I don’t think of myself predicting things,” says Dyson in a recent New York Times article . “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.”
Just as the semantic web will likely provide a tighter coupling between us as biological entities, our intelligent agents, and the googleplexes of data we are creating, the Interplanetary Internet could provide the substrate for an intelligent web that spans multiple planets — and perhaps beyond if we are to consider the SF-like possibilities described by Bradbury and others in the book Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge.
The interesting thing — assuming that we aren’t simply simulations — is that the species likely to be around to experience this intelligent interplanetary web won’t be recognizable as you and me — homo sapiens sapiens. Our descendants will more likely be virtually indistinguishable — in ways we can’t yet understand — from the network itself.
See Also The Reluctant Transhumanist: Charles Stross Interview
Extraterrestrial Intelligence: NASA JPL’s AEGIS Project Brings AI to Mars