Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #13
July 5, 2003
Well, here I am, sitting in the shade of a tree (I wanted to say "old oak", but the nearest one of those is about ten yards away), under a cloudless sky, with a pleasant breeze blowing off the lake and a cold drink by my side. The old enemy is firing up the barbecue for a Fourth-on-the-Fifth-of-July celebratory feast to which I (a Brit in Minnesota) have been invited on condition that I don't try to reclaim the colony for Queen and Country, and all is well with the world (at least, my little corner of it). But I wonder. . . Out there, in the cold darkness of space, where no one can hear you scream, what lies in wait for us?
2. Hive Minds and the Borg
I take it you're familiar with the various incarnations of Star Trek, even if you aren't actually a card-carrying Trekker. But, in case you missed out on the show's greatest evil entity, let me introduce you to – the Borg. For the complete neophyte, here are some official facts on the species from Paramount.
Now, I've had a bit of a discussion with one of my buddies (yes, you Brian!) about whether Borg shouldn't really be plural. His contention is that, since there are lots of them, we really ought to call them "borgs." However, as we shall see, the situation is complicated by the nature of Borgian intelligence and society. That's really what I want to get on to. But mention has to be made first of the prime urge of the Borg (adopting the singular by Star Trek convention), which is to "assimilate." If you have something useful – a civilization or a starship, say – the Borg will acquire it and, as part of the assimilation process (to which resistance is futile), turn you into a new member of the Borg collective. This is a very unpleasant and, it seems to me, ridiculously primitive process. Usually it involves the amputation of part of your arm, including that most fantastically useful and adaptable appendage, the hand, and the substitution in its place of something that looks like it cost about $50 from Home Depot. Small circular saws or mini pincers seem to be de rigueur. You will also receive various extra plumbing, a substitute eye that emits a red laser beam, and, courtesy of an infusion of "nanobes," a new, sickly skin color. Thus kitted out, looking like a deranged Black & Decker salesman, you are ready to begin your new career as one of the Borg. Ah, but there's that problem with terminology again. You see, the central feature of Borg existence is the hive mind and so the phrase "one of the Borg" is somewhat meaningless (though "one with the Borg" would work).
Despite looking like an individual, each Borg is intimately linked to the global consciousness of the collective and totally subjugated to its will. Could such a state of affairs – a single advanced intelligence distributed among many physically distinct but mentally unified organisms – actually exist somewhere in the Universe? On Earth, of course, we have social insects – ants, termites, and some types of bee, for example. Here's a good introduction to them: http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/entomology/topics/societies.htm (here). Obviously, Star Trek's Borg are (is?) modeled on such creatures. There are drones and, one of Star Trek's most delicious creations, the Borg Queen, who, when questioned as to her role in the Borgian scheme of things, remarks enigmatically "I bring order to chaos." Well, you'd be hard pressed to argue that an ant colony has any substantial level of intelligence. Ants communicate by pheromone signals, it's true, and they lay down chemical trails that may be regarded as shared cognitive maps. But they don't think or react in novel ways to situations. They're hard-wired to keep on doing the same things, over and over and over again. Having said this, a lot has been written, in recent years, about what's become known as collective intelligence or swarm intelligence. Here's a little essay that talks about how much of the behavior of social insects, such as how termites "decide" where to build their mounds or ants "choose" the shortest path to a food source, comes about as a result of self-organizing processes: http://ai-depot.com/Essay/SocialInsects.html (here).
Could there be such a thing as true high-level hive intelligence? I think you could make a pretty good case that the Internet is heading that way. When you're surfing the Web, hopping from site to site, sharing e-mails, joining in live chat rooms, or engaging as some alternative persona in a real-time, multi-user adventure game, there's a genuine sense that you're part of a larger, multicomponent mind – your self temporarily merged with a complex web of servers, software, and millions of other organic processing nodes like yourself. Now imagine a time – and it may not be too long off – when direct brain-computer interfaces become available. Then you'll be able to plug yourself more or less seamlessly into the great WWW and become like a single cell, or drone, in the giant brain of the planet. With wireless technology and high-bandwidth, 24-hour-a-day Internet access, you'd never need be alone with your thoughts again. Hmm. Not sure I'd want that. What happens if, or rather when, hackers get into your brain, via its Internet interface, and start downloading your innermost secrets – or worse, implanting new, unwanted memories or viruses. Can you imagine waking up and finding that you have a sudden urge to buy 500 useless products? Yes, spam has finally found its way directly into your gray matter! This brings us to the pros and cons of hive intelligence. In some classic science fiction tales, such as Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood End (Clarke, like Freeman Dyson, was strongly influenced by Stapledon), the blending of individual minds into a global consciousness is presented in a positive light and as the ultimate stage of human evolution. See my encyclopedia page here. There are obvious advantages to being intimately part of a much bigger intelligence and mental support structure. But you have to give up some or all of your individuality in the process. And, for many, that may seem too high a price to pay. The Borg represent the worse case scenario in which your individuality is forcibly wrenched away and you're then compelled to carry out heinous acts, including further assimilations, for the good of the collective. This theme of being "taken over" was a common one in 'fifties sci-fi movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and a thinly-veiled cosmic transposition of the perceived communist threat of that era. I think that's why the Borg are the preeminent foe in the Star Trek universe. Yes, they look ugly and play dirty. But what really makes them scary is that they are the ultimate communist hardliners, bent on quashing individuality and personal ambition, while the Federation (an idealized extension of the United States) is all for liberty and human rights. It's a nice irony then that the Federation, in the long run, tends to do most of the assimilating – even implanting a desire in the Borg to break away from their totalitarian regime.
Are there any hive minds out there? As the development of the Internet and the promise of neural links suggests, they may be a routine outcome of advanced information technology throughout the Galaxy and beyond. We might be at this stage ourselves, if we allow it to happen, within the next century or so. But what about a naturally-evolved hive mind in which the superorganism has intellectual powers that match or surpass those of a single human? This seems to me much more unlikely because of the extreme communication demands of this type of processing. Ants can get by with chemical signals. But a colony with a high degree of mental cohesion and corporate intelligence would have to flash vast amounts of information between its components, in the same way that neurons of the brain shuttle large amounts of data quickly back and forth. Some kind of physical connection – a nerve or nerve analog – would seem to be indispensable to support an adequate bandwidth. And then what you end up with is really no more than a modified single brain – a colonial organism whose processing nodes are located at the ends of biological wires that can reach out in different directions though (because of the problem of signal delay) not over great distances. While it's possible to imagine such a creature, it's hard to fathom why nature would choose it as a solution, when a more compact brain can operate far more efficiently. But I'd love to be proved wrong!
For more discussion of all the topics mentioned here, see http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Global/Posthumanity/WeBorg.html (here).
was newsletterless because of feverish, last-minute work on the next Darling
opus, "The Universal Book of Astronomy," which is the companion volume
to "The Complete Book of Spaceflight" published last year. Amazon already
has a page devoted to it and there's also a description in the Wiley catalog
For more on all my books and other stuff that interests me at the moment,
stop in at my website. And feel free to write me at any time.