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Virtual Neuronal Networks
O/S for a Global Brain?
by Jason Keehn
Issue 2, Winter 1997/98
Originally published in The Resonance Project
They symbol of science for the next century is the dynamical net.
-- Kevin Kelly
Out of Control
Welcome to the networked world. Almost overnight, personal computers have morphed into communicators, digital appendages of a "global brain." Along with hand held devices and interactive TVs, the computer has become our portal into a communication space of ever-expanding proportions. "The global brain" a phrase coined over a decade ago by author Peter Russellăis indeed a compelling metaphor. Russell foresaw a point in the growth of computer networks and telecommunications where their complexity would equal that of the 100 billion or so networked neurons in the human brain. With all of humanity linked together in an earth-spanning communications web, a single overmind for the planet as a whole might somehow emerge.

But as things stand, what will prevent the internet, an amazing but haphazard creation, from exploding into an incoherent froth, or dividing into competing cyber-fiefdoms? Already today, many computer programs are so complex their security cannot be guaranteed. Layers of programming pile up to the point where no one knows the whole program. What happens as many of these programs are distributed across the web? Only a few years old, the web itself is gridlocked by overwhelming traffic and incoherent systems. Does the internet at this point really have what it takes to self-organize into a brain-like organism? Or will it simply become the world's largest digitized library?

Bioneering the Infosphere
Malibu-based communications theorist Francis Jeffrey believes he has an answer, in the form of what he calls "virtual neuronal networks." Applying the "brain knows best" philosophy at a fundamental programming level, such networks, he believes, usher in a completely new paradigm of networked computing and communications. These virtual neuronal networks, as incorporated by Jeffrey into his proprietary software, eLPHIN (TM), allow a uniform, comprehensive and comprehensible approach to all aspects of the computing environment.

eLPHIN represents the practical results of Jeffrey's decades-long study of the dynamics of communicative networks found in the brain, in computers, and in human, dolphin and whale societies. He credits two bored dolphins, who seemed to spend their time making up games to enrich their impoverished environment, with providing early inspiration for eLPHIN. Attempts to develop a computer system capable of analyzing their high-bandwidth sonar speech in tandem with their behavior were beyond the limits of the affordable technology of the time. Nevertheless, the conceptualizing involved paved the way for eLPHIN.

Network Meta-Maps
A turning point in Jeffrey's convergent meditations on intelligence, communication and networks came when one day, delirious from a severe bout of influenza, he saw interesting patterns of neurons flashing in his minds eye. In the fever-vision, the neurons were not simply responding reflexively to one another in a simple input-output fashion but were actively recording their patterns of relationship and transmitting these network-maps to other parts of the brain. Presented with this graphic readout of his own cortex (or was it just the phantasm of a neurologically educated mind?), he leapt to the idea that maybe nervesălike people in a networkăare mostly concerned with conversing about their relationships.

While this concept of a "meta-signalling" neuron has not yet been accepted into neuroscientific doctrine, the picture is consistent with much of what is known about the brain and consciousness. Feelings, actions and memories can be triggered by manipulating parts of the brain, either chemically or with electrodes. In a seeming paradox, however, much of the mind's contents do not appear to be stored anywhere in particular; occasionally large masses of brain tissue have been destroyed with no obvious loss of functionality. When a patient loses certain memories or skills, we might ask whether they lost the "storage device," or whether a critical link in the "network" was simply disabled, preventing the skill or memory from being expressed. Does stimulation inside the brain access data stored in a physical place, or does it activate parts of a network over which certain functions are defined? The picture that emerges from contemporary neuroscience is of the brain as a kind of wildly distributed processor.

At the same time, somehow a few key neurons can induce global changes in brain activity, and at the other end of the spectrum, system-wide events -- intentions, feelings, hormones -- modulate the functioning of individual neurons. For this kind of conversation between conceptual levels to occur, one imagines there must also be some relatively uniform, scalar principle involved.

A neuron is estimated to wield computational powers comparable to a single microprocessor.

If we look at the brain in microscopic detail, we find a multitude of intertwined neurons. Each neuron is its own cell, a self-organized entity, with up to thousands of slender neurites linking it with other neurons. A neuron is estimated to wield computational powers comparable to a single microprocessor. At any moment, a neuron is receiving and correlating multiple signals, and is itself signaling to many other neurons. While science is still unable to explain how the minutiae of neural mechanics add up to what we experience as consciousness, one thing is clear, simultaneous communication among discrete parts, wound up into networks and networks of networks, is a basic principle behind thought and action. Earlier metaphors of the brain as merely a computer - or even a supercomputer - were far from the mark. A better model would be an internet, itself made up of many smaller intranets, and these, perhaps, themselves composed of smaller intranets, almost ad infinitum.

Supposing neurons can indeed meta-signal, it is not hard to see how encoded maps might themselves perhaps be encoded by other meta-maps. Might awareness then be more a function of intertwining and meta-referencing feedback loops travelling across, but not localized in, neurons and groups of neurons? Could this be what theorists are grasping at when they speak of the brain as a kind of hologram, where each part contains a picture of the whole? This vision opens up new conceptual horizons: a world in which information is stored not in places but in patterns of relationshipăie., connections. Cognition, viewed in this perspective, arises from the brain's dynamic process of imaging and relating to its own constitutive processes.

In practical terms, the paradigm twist represented by eLPHIN encompasses and reaches beyond computer networking, open systems, object-orientation and cross-platform languages. Today's global developments reveal how much the emphasis in computing has already shifted from literal content and number crunching to the representation of relationships.

Vistas
One might speculate as to whether an internet made up of virtual neuronal networks could some day acquire independent intelligences, perhaps manifesting as elusive entities occasionally popping through the waves and communicating with startled cybersurfers, as depicted in William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy. Science fiction aside however, Jeffrey cautions that we should remember to expect intelligence not from a programmed system (as in A.I. expert systems) but from the intelligent interaction of participants in a network.

So, will Jeffrey's virtual neuronal networks revolutionize the internet and usher us into a new era in intelligent computing? No one knows, but just maybe when historians look back on the twentieth century and scoff at our primitive technology, they will recognize eLPHIN as a first step. A step away from mechanistic hierarchical systems and towards the first truly bioneered information technology.

Jason Keehn was a consulting editor and writer for Brain/Mind Bulletin (currently dormant) from 1993 to 1996. Under the alias Cinnamon Twist he's had essays on the philosophy and history of trance dance recently published in URB and XLR8R magazines. You can reach him via e-mail at donut@hooked.net

©Copyright Resonant Media, 1998. All rights reserved.