Founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones.”5 I suspect we face a similar conundrum in our attempts to think about machines that think. We speculate elaborately about some issues while ignoring others that are fundamental.

While pundits allow that an AI may not be like us and speculate about the risks implicit in the differences, they make one enormous assumption—that of an individual self. The AI, as imagined, is an individual consciousness.

What if, instead, an AI were more like a multicellular organism, a eukaryote evolution beyond our prokaryote selves? What’s more, what if we weren’t even the cells of such an organism, but its microbiome? And what if the intelligence of that eukaryote today was like the intelligence of Grypania spiralis, the oldest known multicellular eukaryote—not yet self-aware as a human is aware but still irrevocably on the evolutionary path leading to today’s humans. This notion is at best a metaphor, but I believe it’s a useful one.

Perhaps humans are the microbiome living in the guts of an AI that’s only now being born! We know that without our microbiome we would cease to live. Perhaps the global AI has the same characteristics: not an independent entity but a symbiosis with the human consciousnesses living within it.

Following this logic, we might conclude that there’s a primitive global brain, consisting not just of all connected devices but also of the connected humans using those devices. The senses of that global brain are the cameras, microphones, keyboards, location sensors of every computer, smartphone, and “Internet of Things” device. The thoughts of that global brain are the collective output of millions of individual contributing cells.

Danny Hillis is said to have remarked, “Global consciousness is that thing responsible for deciding that decaffeinated coffeepots should be orange.” The meme spread—not universally, to be sure, but sufficiently that the pattern propagates. News, ideas, and images now propagate across the global brain in seconds rather than years via search engines and social media.

And it isn’t just ideas and sensations (news of current events) that spread across the network. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson speculates that the spread of “codes”—i.e., programs—from computer to computer is akin to the spread of viruses, and perhaps of more complex living organisms, that take over a host and put its machinery to work reproducing that program. When people join the Web, or sign up on social media applications, they reproduce its code onto their local machine node. They interact with the program, and it changes their behavior. This is true of all programs, but in the Network Age there’s a set of programs whose explicit goal is the sharing of awareness and ideas. Other programs are increasingly deploying new capacity for silicon learning and autonomous response. Thus, the organism is building new capabilities.

When people share images or ideas in partnership with these programs, some of what’s shared is the evanescent awareness of the moment, but some of them “stick” and become memories and persistent memes. When news of import spreads around the world in moments, is this not the awareness in some kind of global brain? When an idea takes hold in millions of individual minds and is reinforced by repetition across our silicon networks, is it not a persistent thought?

The kinds of “thoughts” that a global brain has are different from those of an individual or a less connected society. At their best, these thoughts allow for coordinated memory on an unprecedented scale and sometimes even unforeseen ingenuity and new forms of cooperation. At their worst, they allow for the adoption of misinformation as truth, and for corrosive attacks on the fabric of society, as one portion of the network seeks advantage at the expense of others (think of spam and fraud or of the behavior of financial markets in recent decades).

The AI we will confront won’t be a mind in an individual machine. It won’t be something we look at as “other.” It may well be us.