Net prophet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 April, 2009, 12:00am

Considering the omnipresence of the internet in everyday life, it's strange that so few films have been based around it. The dreary You've Got Mail tried to make a drama out of receiving an e-mail, while Sandra Bullock's The Net was an average chase movie that didn't really have much to do with the internet. The Matrix took the idea of an online virtual reality and turned it into a giant sci-fi extravaganza. But generally filmmakers have avoided focusing on the Net, as shots of someone sitting at a computer screen aren't that interesting.

Japanese anime has provided the only film that gets to grips with the possibilities of the internet. Ghost in the Shell, directed by animation legend Oshii Mamoru, is a philosophical film that integrates the internet with the concepts of artificial intelligence (AI) and evolution. One strand of contemporary scientific thought, known as hard materialism, hypothesises that human consciousness is simply the aggregation of millions of pieces of data contained in our brain. If a computer had a big enough hard disk, it could access enough data to be fully conscious like us. In Ghost in the Shell, the internet is the hard disk - the 'brain' - that stores enough data to support an intelligent life form. The story's main character is Major Motoko, a cyborg with a human brain - that's the 'ghost' in her metallic body - who's hunting down an anti-government hacker on the Net. When she finds the hacker, she discovers that it's an AI. What's more, this AI was originally a computer program code-named 2501 that became self-aware by amassing trillions of bits of data while roaming the internet.

The film contains some interesting ideas: Motoko can plug her cyborg body directly into the internet to use the police GPS system, for instance. But the big concept is that there is enough data on the internet to act as the brain of a sentient being.

In science, the attempt to make an AI by amassing such data is called the top-down approach. According to physics professor Michio Kaku in Physics of the Impossible: 'The goal has been to program all the rules of pattern recognition and common sense onto a single CD. By inserting this CD into a computer, they believe, the computer would suddenly become self-aware and attain human intelligence.'

The problem is that after more than 50 years of such an approach, AI robots are still unable to perform functions as simple as crossing a room without bumping into a table. The sheer amount of data that our unconscious brain processes to carry out this simple act, says Kaku, is still too vast to replicate.

All the information about humanity that an artificial intelligence needs is contained on the internet. Can anyone write a program that's able to harness it?

According to Ghost in the Shell, that might be achievable - by the internet itself.

Virtual cinema Net prophet Richard James Havis



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