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Wednesday, September 8, 2010 / Duncan Forgan

If Language is Consciousness, What of the Semantic Web?


Research reported in the New Scientist this week suggests that the internal monologue we establish is integral to understanding the world.  It may even have formed part of a feedback loop with cognition – using language to categorise things with words forced us to make connections between them, and begin to perceive our world.  If that’s so, then what does that mean for the Web?

80% of of our mental experience is verbal, rather than visual or emotional (Psychological Medicine, vol. 24, p. 395).  Numerous studies have shown that applying linguistic “tags” to objects allows us to categorise and remember them more easily.  The Whorfian Hypothesis, which suggests that cognition is explicitly encoded by language, appears to be gathering strength.

If language (and semantics, the attachment of meaning to words and symbols) is a prerequisite for cognition and ultimately self-awareness, then what of the so-called semantic web?  This proposed version of the Internet will know from the context when you search for “Chicago” you mean the musical, not the city, resulting in a web that no longer requires a human user to sift search results and mine data.  While making the Internet more user-friendly is laudable, what are the consequences of a web which understands meaning?

Categorising inputs is a fundamental component of language.  The optic nerve gathers a tremendous amount of information – coupled with audio and other senses, this is a huge dataset to interpret without tools such as language to help.  An Internet that continually makes connections between words and meanings (based on user input) will presumably develop a linguistic sense of its own.  If language allows us to decipher the world, the semantic web should in theory be able to perform the same function, using web content instead of sensory impulses.

And then what? If the Whorfian hypothesis is correct, then language is a critical component of consciousness, and the semantic web could “bootstrap” itself towards sentience.  The consequences of a self-aware Web are hardly clear – Skynet cannot be ruled out as a possibility.  Equally, the Web could become a (very powerful) force for good.

What is clear is that the Web’s sentience, if it occurs, will be a direct result of human action.  It will be our search results, our webpages, our Facebooks and blogs which define the make-up of the Internet’s mind.  We have no way of predicting how the infant Internet would sort through the petabytes of data to construct a worldview.  With 40% of active users originating from Asia, the Internet might only learn English as a second language.  Silver surfers are more common these days, but the Web is still a young person’s province.  We might be dealing with a petulant /b/tard who is obsessed with kittehs (can interwebz haz smartz?)

Whatever the outcome, we should think carefully about where the Internet is going as an organism.  It’s not going anywhere now, but one day it might be able to outrun us as a species – and then where will we be?

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