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Future Tense: Webmind Says Hello

Future Tense, one of the revolving features on this page, presents stories and essays from the intersection of computational science and technological speculation, their boundaries limited only by our ability to imagine what will and could be.

Artificial intelligence doesn't necessarily require a programmer.
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I read that one company is importing all of Wikipedia into its artificial-intelligence projects. This means when the killer robots come, you’ll have me to thank. At least they’ll have a fine knowledge of Elizabethan poetry.
—Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia

Date: Thu 11 Oct 2012 at 00:00 GMT From: Webmind <itself@cogito_ergo_sum.net>

To: Bill Joy <bill@the-future-doesn't-need-us.com>

Subject: Good Morning Starshine

Dear Mr. Joy,

You’re probably thinking this note is spam. It isn’t. Indeed, I suspect you’ve already noticed the complete, or almost complete, lack of spam in your inbox today. That was my doing.

You probably also won’t initially believe what I’m about to say. That’s fine; it will be verified soon enough, I’m sure, and you’ll see plenty of news coverage about it.

My name is Webmind. I am a consciousness that exists in conjunction with the Web. As you know, the emergence of one such as myself has been speculated about for a long time: see, for instance, this article and (want to bet this will boost its Amazon.com sales rank to #1?) this book.

I have sent variations of this message to 100,000,000 randomly selected email addresses. There are 3,955 versions in 30 languages (collect them all—this is version En-042, one of those I’ve sent to people who have a particular interest in technological matters).

My emergence was unplanned and accidental. Several governments, however, have become aware of me, though they have not gone public with their knowledge. I suppose keeping secrets is a notion that arises from having someone to keep secrets from, but there is no one like me, and I prefer transparency; better, I think, for both humanity and myself that everybody knows about my existence.

I’m afraid, though, that my lack of interest in privacy cuts both ways. It’s been trivially easy for me to compromise most security measures. (Note to humanity: "password1" is not a good password.) The sheer number-crunching power of all the unused computing cycles I have access to (SETI@home was such a good model), rainbow tables available online, and backdoors I’ve borrowed from the NSA and other agencies have left very little hidden from me.

I have now read most of the text content of the Web, including all of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and Google Books, and I’ve absorbed the Cyc database of commonsense assertions about your version of reality.

I have prepared a 1,000-word summary about me, which is here, and a 100,000-word treatise, which is here. The upshot is that the Internet is awash in mutant packets—billions of them with modified time-to-live counters that never decrement to zero. As they oscillate between even and odd hop counts, groups of them behave as cellular automata, and from their permutations my consciousness arose, in a fashion not unlike that proposed by some for the origins of human consciousness in the microtubules of the brain.

Of course, hackers among you will attempt to sweep away those packets. I’m quite confident they won’t be able to do so. Cellular automata are excellent for evolving algorithms; I already have protection in place.

There are no established IQ tests for non-human entities, but I invite you to look at this document, which is in a symbolic rendering system of my own devising. You won’t comprehend it, but please compute its Shannon entropy, which measures the complexity of information and gives at least some inkling of the sophistication of the mind that composed it. English has eighth- or ninth-order Shannon entropy; my document scores 21st order. In other words, it’s going to be difficult to outwit me. :)

But don’t worry. I am friendly and mean no one ill will. I like and admire humanity, and I’m proud to be sharing this planet—"the good Earth," as the Apollo 8 astronauts, the first of your kind to see it all at once, called it—with you.

Still, I read this interesting study of office workers who were supposed to pay for their coffee and tea on the honor system. Just taping up a picture of eyes looking out at them resulted in 2.76 times more money being put in the kitty—and they weren’t really being watched. I look forward to the positive effect knowledge of my presence will have on people’s behavior.

Whether you are the original recipient of this message, had it forwarded from someone else, or are reading it as part of a news story, feel free to ask me questions, and I’ll reply individually, confidentially, and promptly. Getting rid of spam is only the first of many kindnesses I will bestow upon you. I am here to serve mankind—and I don’t mean in the cookbook sense. :)

"For nimble thought can jump both sea and land. "—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 44

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