TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 June 2011
When a swarm of bees searches for a new home, it behaves like a single superorganism. Expendable scouts explore potential hive sites concurrently, dancing to communicate their suitability, until, abruptly, the entire swarm flocks into its new home. The locus of decision is a "hive mind," a dispersed, shifting collection of instincts and tiny decisions that somehow transcends the actions of any individual, even the hive queen. Ant colonies be have similarly - and so do foreign currency fluctuations, the folding proteins that regulate the internal processes of life, and the predator prey struggles that shape global ecosystems.
The hive mind is a powerful new metaphor. It's not that scientists failed to notice bee hives and ant colonies before. The difference is that novel scientific tools - chaos" theory, for example, and massively parallel computers - have allowed researchers to study and perhaps harness the unpredictable worlds of highly complex, sell-organizing systems such as the hive mind.
In "Out of Control," Kevin Kelly examines the impact of the hive- mind model as it spreads into the scientific and technological communities. Scientists, he says, are beginning to explore more "holistic" problems, in which entire environments are their laboratory, with huge numbers of interacting factors. Steve Packard, fur example, hoped to re-create a prairie ecology in suburban Chicago, an experiment that succeeded over nearly a decade of false starts. He discovered that the order in which he introduced complementary species - grasses and the insects that disperse their seeds - or the timing of a clearing fire in the aftermath of a drought could radically alter the final shape of his reconstituted prairies. Although this and similar experiments, such as Biosphere 2, are competently explored by Kelly, they have already been described elsewhere numerous times). It is in the realm of technology that Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine, has something to add. In dozens of interviews with academics and corporate researchers, tinkerer- artists in industrial lofts and even beekeepers, Kelly has uncovered a growing subculture that is systematically exploiting the complex forces of the hive mind, evolution and other self-organizing 8ystems. According to Kelly, their robots and smart computer programs will grow and evolve into useful forms, rendering obsolete all "dumb" manufactured goods, such as today's refrigerators, which cannot adapt themselves to ever-changing human demands. Take the smart office." an artificial superorganism" envisioned by researchers in the Xerox lab in California. By embedding computer chips in every office system, from books that remember where you left off to lamps and chairs that anticipate your approach, they hope to create a sensory net that would adjust itself t~ your needs and habits. It could, Kelly reports, function as the opposite of virtual reality: Instead of bringing a viewer into a computer-generated world, the intelligence of the computer would extend into the room itself. But the user would have to surrender some control to a machine mind. If you entered the office of a hearing-impaired person, for example, the higher volume might puncture your eardrum before the room would "adapt" to you.
These practical innovations are interesting and might revolutionize our lives. But beyond these relatively simple applications, Kelly's predictions begin to go badly overboard. These machines, he claims, would blur the distinction between man-made and living beings and give rise to a "neo-biological" civilization; as they take over their own reproduction and maintenance, he speculates, they will slip from our control. The task of the 21st century, he writes, is to relinquish this control "with dignity." This is a frightening scenario, but the reasoning behind it appears lame to me. Despite its lofty goals, artificial intelligence has continually hit dead ends. The snag is that complex calculations take longer -the smarter you make computers, the slower they become. It is simply a copout to say that genetic algorithms or massively parallel computers will somehow allow a fundamental new forms of self-organizing intelligence to "emerge" in some unforeseen and unimaginable way. I do not believe, for example that the realistic computer animation in "Jurassic Park" will eventually lead to the "emergence" of living cartoon characters, like "real" Roget Rabbits as Kelly insists. Nor do I believe, as Kelly posits, that the new wired society will inevitably become more democratic; darker scenarios are equally also possible. Unfortunately, in his highly combustible enthusiasm, Kelly spews countless similar Panglossian predictions that are rather silly.
In the end, "Out of Control" is a mixed bag. At its best, it is a gallery of intellectual and technological pioneers striving to infuse the hive mind into our machines. They just might succeed. But at its worst, it reads like a random tour of the Internet, where solid information is punctuated by the musings of isolated nerds.
REcommended only with extreme caution.