The Hivemind Singularity

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In a near-future science fiction novel, human intelligence evolves into a hivemind that makes people the violent cells of a collective being.

slimemoldnetwork.jpg

Slime mold network formation (Science).

New Model Army, a 2010 novel by the English writer Adam Roberts, concerns itself with many things: the intimacy shared by soldiers at war, the motivating powers of memory and love, the rival merits of hierarchical and anarchic social structures, the legitimacy of the polity known as Great Britain, the question of European identity. Also giants. (Roberts has a history of interest in giants -- they feature prominently in his imaginative and highly excremental novel Swiftly -- and, more generally, in the scale of being: how very small, very large, and in-between-sized beings experience the world differently. This is also a theme in his recent digital-only story "Anticopernicus".) But New Model Army is perhaps above all an immensely stimulating inquiry into what we light-heartedly call the "hive mind." And it raises a set of discomfiting questions: Are our electronic technologies on the verge of enabling truly collective human intelligence? And if that happens, will we like the results?

The title New Model Army derives from the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, when Oliver Cromwell led armies raised by Parliament against supporters of King Charles. The New Model Army that arose at that time was "new" especially in that its soldiers were full-time professionals, ready to be deployed anywhere they were needed, even in Scotland or Ireland, whereas previous English armies had been little more than local militias. These soldiers were also deeply devoted to fairly extreme forms of Protestantism and despised the established Church of England.

With this background in mind, Adam Roberts asks us to imagine a near future when electronic communications technologies enable groups of people to communicate with one another instantaneously, and on secure private networks invulnerable, or nearly so, to outside snooping. Imagine that such groups arise -- not created but self-organized and (at first) self-funding -- and are devoted not to radical Protestant Christianity but rather to radical democracy. And imagine one more thing: that such New Model Armies (NMAs) arm themselves and fight on behalf of those who pay them. In short, imagine groups arising that resemble Anonymous, whose extemporaneous self-organizing projects have recently been brilliantly chronicled by Quinn Norton, but with better communications and an interest, not in hacking websites, but in fighting and killing for money. It's noteworthy that New Model Army was written just as Anonymous arrived in the public consciousness: Roberts's story therefore now seems like it could happen tomorrow, rather than twenty-five years from now (which is when the book is set).

All this would be fascinating enough, but Roberts takes the implications of the NMAs a step further than the reader expects. Again, each NMA organizes itself and makes decisions collectively: no commander establishes strategy and gives orders, but instead all members of the NMA communicate with what amounts to an advanced audio form of the IRC protocol, debate their next step, and vote. Results of a vote are shared to all immediately and automatically, at which point the soldiers start doing what they voted to do. Those who cannot accept group decisions tend to drift out of the NMA, but Roberts shows convincingly how powerfully group identity links the soldiers to one another -- how readily they accept the absorption of individual consciousness into a far greater one. They are proud of their shared identity, and tend to smirk when officers of more traditional armies want to know who their "ringleaders" are. They have no ringleaders; they don't even have specialists: everyone tends the wounded, not just some designated medical corps, and when they need to negotiate, the negotiating team is chosen by army vote. Each soldier does what needs to be done, with need determined by the NMA which each has freely joined. They take pride in fighting freely, as opposed to the soldiers in the British Army, whom they see as slaves to a feudal system.

The narrator of the story insists from the beginning that he is not the story's protagonist: that would be Pantagral, the NMA he belongs to, whose name echoes one of the giants in Rabelais's great sixteenth-century satire, Gargantua and Pantagruel. The really fascinating and, to the British Army, disturbing thing about Pantagral is its ability to change its shape and extent at will. Its soldiers can form into one enormous mass in order to attack a city -- acting for the time much like a traditional army -- but then at need dissolve into mist. Soldiers just go away and find shelter somewhere, bunking with friends or in abandoned buildings. They stay in touch with one another and when Pantagral decides to reform, they rise up to strike once more.

In short, they behave like a slime mold, which changes size, splits and combines, according to need, in such a way that it's hard to say whether the slime mold is one big thing or a bunch of little things. Slime molds and social insects behave with an intelligence that ought to be impossible for such apparently simple organisms, but, as Steven Johnson points out in his fascinating book Emergencesimple organisms obeying simple rules can collectively manifest astonishingly complex behavior.

New Model Army presents us with a question: What happens when human beings, not just slime molds or ants, submit themselves to collective will and become part of an immense shared intelligence? If complex behavior can simply "emerge" through the simple decisions of simple creatures, what might happen if much more complex creatures become absorbed into a collectivity?

The first answer that science-fiction fans are likely to give is: The Borg. Which is to say, the prospect of any single human intelligence being lost in a collective mind fills us with fear. We fear that the transcending of human intelligence will also mark the transcending of human feeling, that all of our familiar and deeply-treasured ideas about what constitutes human flourishing will be simply cast aside by a superior intelligence that has other and supposedly greater concerns.

New Model Army is not reassuring on this score. Roberts shows that we are fascinated by giants because they are more powerful than we are, and can do things that we but dream of doing; and yet we also know that when a certain degree of size-difference is exceeded, we lose perceptual contact. The Brobdingnagians of Gulliver's Travels would not know that the Lilliputians even existed, and could blindly crush their tiny cities. A minor character in New Model Army asks why people only fold themselves into a hive mind in order to pursue violence or other forms of destruction, and never to pick up litter. A provocative enough question; but differences in scale can enable wholly unwitting destruction. The Brobdingnagians could eliminate the Lilliputians while playing some giant's game.

What if this is the Singularity? Not simply our machines becoming smarter than we are, but the machines we use to communicate with one another enabling our own translation to a supposedly "higher" sphere of being? What if the "posthuman" isn't being a cyborg but instead being a cell in a giant's body, helping to enable a vast consciousness that you're never aware of and that is never aware of you? What if the price exacted by the Singularity is the elimination of human individuality altogether, either voluntarily or, if you happen to have retained your individuality at the moment when the playful giants come through, involuntarily? We tend to talk easily and happily about crowdsourcing, the wisdom of crowds, the hive mind. New Model Army makes me think that we could benefit from a little more uneasiness.

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Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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