Pioneer of the Global Brain
Born in 1960 in Vilvoorde, Belgium, with a physics PhD from the Free University of Brussels (VUB), Francis Heylighen started his career as yet another physicist with a craving to understand the foundations of the universe – the physical and philosophical laws that make everything tick. But unlike most physicists who’ve been sucked into the world of computers, Francis didn’t give up his previous intellectual ambitions when he got the computer bug. Rather, he became convinced that complex, self-organizing computer networks are just as valid and important a way to understand the universe as physics or metaphysics. Since 1982, he’s used his research position at the VUB’s transdisciplinary “Leo Apostel” research center to pursue precisely this perspective.
In 1989, he Valentin Turchin and Cliff Joslyn founded the Principia Cybernetica Project, aimed at marshalling a group of minds together to pursue the application of cybernetic theory to modern computer systems. In 1993, very shortly after Tim Berners-Lee released the HTML/HTTP software framework and thus created the Web, the Principia Cybernetica website (http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/ ) went online. The Internet, the site claimed boldly, was the ideal medium for the development of the next generation of thinking about life, the universe and everything.
For a while after its 1993 launch, Principia Cybernetica was among the largest and most popular sites on the Web. Today the Web is a whole different kind of place, but Principia Cybernetica remains a rich, sprawling Website, a unique and popular resource for those seeking deep, radical thinking about the future of technology, mind and society. Eschewing the traditional hierarchical structure of most Websites, it is structured more like the “semantic networks” used inside AI programs, with each page linked to the other pages that relate to it in various ways. It doesn’t yet organize itself automatically based on user feedback or AI intuition, but it’s actively improved and updated by the numerous humans involved with the organization. The basic philosophy presented is founded on the thought of Turchin and other mid-century systems theorists, who view the world as a complex self-organizing system in which complex control structures spontaneously evolve and emerge.
The site’s creation and early development was a collaborative effort on the part of its three creators. Today, though, Turchin spends most of his time working on his own investigations in computer science and philosophy, and his start-up company Supercompilers LLC. Joslyn is primarily occupied with practical data analysis and computer system design work inspired by cybernetics. Francis Heylighen, however, remains squarely focused on the Principia Cybernetica vision and all that it entails.
The Internet never stands still, and neither does Principia Cybernetica, nor Heylighen. Over the past few years, Heylighen and his colleague Johan Bollen have experimented with Web-like systems in which the links between pages are created, destroyed, strengthened or weakened by user feedback. They’ve found that, in this sort of system, the structure of the web of documents gradually comes to represent the collective thoughts and beliefs of the users. Underlying this is an idea somewhat different from Turchin’s more elitist vision of brilliant scientists gradually refining one anothers’ conceptual formalizations, slowly adding one node after another to the emerging network of understanding. Rather, it suggests that truth can be arrived at through a kind of statistical chaos. Just add together everyone’s opinions – the bad ones will cancel out through destructive interference, and the good ones will reinforce each other through constructive interference; ultimately the true ideas will emerge. Heylighen and Bollen’s experimental systems haven’t been released on the Principia Cybernetica site yet – given the limiting nature of current Web software, there are some implementation difficulties -- but this will no doubt happen in time.
And in 1996, Heylighen founded the "Global Brain Group", an international discussion forum that groups most of the scientists who have worked on the concept of emergent Internet intelligence. This group runs an e-mail discussion group, which initially was extremely limited in membership, open only to scientists who had published serious articles on the notion of a global brain. This group numbered about 10, and was not particularly chatty, so eventually it was decided to admit more people, though only people approved by the initial elite group. The group is still fairly quiet, although a few interesting discussions have emerged – the most interesting ones revolving around the notion of “freedom,” and the question of whether the emergence of brain-like complexity in computer and communication networks will take it away from us humans.
In his posts to the Global Brain Group, Heylighen demonstrates the combination of vision and practicality that has made him such a valuable contributor to our understanding of the Net and its possibilities. For instance, in June 2000 I posted a message suggesting a large potential problem with the increasing interdependence of humans and computers. Put simple, we’re built to interact with Nature, not with hardware. this way, the picture sounds very rosy. However, there is a major possible snag. So, even if the Net eventually grows as complex and multitextured as Nature, it will not match us as well. Every aspect of our body is attuned to the natural environment, not the Intelligent Internet!
I began thinking about crazy ways to integrate emerging technologies with old-fashioned nature, including nanotech bacteria, diffused into the atmosphere, communicating with real bacteria as well as with computer controllers, creating a link between Gaia (the mind of the Earth, posited by James Lovelock) and internet intelligence. Now there’s a global brain deserving of the name!
But Francis brought me quickly down to earth. As he noted,
“There is a … more short-term and more practical possibility, which is that the Internet evolves to fit our inborn characteristics. All evolution is co-evolution: systems mutually adapt. People will adapt to some degree to the new Internet environment, but the Internet will adapt even faster to the people that use it. Just because the Internet is intrinsically much more flexible than our hard-wired instincts and proclivities, it will find a way of presenting itself that matches those proclivities.
“This has happened countless times in the evolution of computer interfaces. For example, the GUI that became popular with the Mac was based on the idea that people don't understand things by reading long lists of file names, but by moving and manipulating objects. Thus, files were represented by icons that you could drag and drop to move them from one directory to another. 3D, virtual reality, as e.g. imagined by Gibson in his original "cyberspace" vision, is another obvious way to make a complex information space match better with our inborn capacities to reason in three dimensional space. "Emotional" agents, that respond to our moods, or show simple emotions, is
another one of these new interface paradigms that tries to fit our evolutionary psychology.
“ I don't say that all these interface tricks will succeed, or even that they are necessary to have a good grasp of the Internet, but they are definitely undergoing a fast evolution and competition in order to find interfaces that are better adapted to our brain.”
These are deep issues. Fascinating issues. And Heylighen, with a modesty that is unusual, almost quaint, on the Net today, doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He’s content to study the issues, to broadcast his insights as he achieves them, and to organize information and discussions leading progressively toward the truth.. Today the Net mediates our discussions with each other; tomorrow we may mediate its discussions with itself. Only time will tell what direction all this is going in – and it may tell us faster than we reckon. We are lucky to have wise scientists like Francis Heylighen to help guide us, collectively, in the direction of understanding.