Aristotle and the Soul of the Internet
I remember my fascination while reading Barabasi's Linked: The New Science of Networks and learning that the physical architecture of the Internet (scale-free networks) is similar to that of an organic system. I bring this up because with every passing day the distinctions between the man and the machine, the organic and the mechanic, are getting blurred, to the point that some are asking when will the Internet wake up.
Being a layman, I am not equipped with the scientific tools to seriously answer this question, but on the other hand, being a layman allows me to share with you some unserious thoughts about Aristotle and the Soul of the Internet. I think that Aristotle gives us some definitions that can help us understand why we have this eerie sensation that the Internet is live and kicking.
Aristotle determines what an organic living object is using the following criteria:
a. Growth, nutrition, (reproduction)
b. Autonomous Locomotion (i.e. auto-generated movement in space)
d. Intellect (= thought)
Using these four criteria, Aristotle creates a hierarchy of souls, as follow:
a. Nutritive soul (plants), which complies only with A above, i.e. Nutrition
b. Sensitive soul (all animals), which complies with A, B and C above
c. Rational soul (human beings), which complies with all of the above.
Pretty straight forward, I would say.
Now, what I'd like to show is that these Aristotelian criteria reinforce and probably explain the feelings we're having about the Internet, Asimov's Robot and other cyborgs. I will do so by referring to that system's architecture known as scale-out.
Scale-out is an architecture used more and more in those cases where computer systems are required to scale ad-infinitum in order to sustain an unknown yet massive amount of online users. Amazon, eBay, Google etc. are all companies specializing in both the deployment and the optimization of scale-out architecture. Many large enterprises are employing this kind of architecture as well, and a whole new field, known as Utility Computing, has been created in order to formalize and productize the scale-out principles.
The following conceptual components and processes make part of the scale-out architecture:
The Brain (or mind, or manager, or controller)
The Brain constantly senses (or monitors) the system's environment: how many users are currently on-line? What is the overall CPU consumption of the system? What is the status of each of the hardware/software components that make the system? and so on. This function of the brain adheres to Aristotle's criterion C: perception.
The Brain performs real-time compilation of all this sensual data and meditates about the current state of things. In case a faulty situation is either identified or anticipated, the Brain reacts by self-adapting itself to the newly created situation. To better visualize this adaptation process, I will use the following scenario:
A given system consists of 4 servers, an application that runs on them etc. The Brain identifies a dangerous increase in users' load – something that can be solved by adding a fifth server. The brain then launches some dynamic, self-healing/self-nutrition processes that take a bare metal – a hardware-only box – attache it to storage and network devices, install the required operating system and applications and finally make the server fully operational.
We have just witnessed two Aristotelian criteria in motion:
Criterion A: Nutrition, Self-feeding and reproduction
The system just "ate" an external bare metal, digested it and turned it into an integral part of its organs. In many cases, what the system is actually doing is cloning itself into the new server – clearly, a reproduction process.
Criterion B: Autonomous locomotion - movement in space
The system now occupies five servers. It occupies more physical space than it has occupied a minute before. In that sense it demonstrated movement in physical space.
Needless to say, all these operations occur without any human intervention. They are completely autonomous. Hence, we can say that the system has performed all these actions voluntarily, autonomously.
We have successfully :-) demonstrated Criterion A, B, C. I would argue that the Brain and the algorithms inside it could well be seen as thought, i.e. Criterion D. But regardless of this last criterion, I think we can agree that Aristotle could live with the statement that The Internet has a soul.