Society is a Neural Net
Neural nets are a popular technique in Artificial Intelligence based on simplified models of neurons and interneuronal connections gathered from brain research. Ray Kurzweil describes them pretty well here:
One basic approach to neural nets can be described as follows. Each point of a given input (for speech, each point represents two dimensions, one being frequency and the other time; for images, each point would be a pixel in a two-dimensional image) is randomly connected to the inputs of the first layer of simulated neurons. Every connection has an associated synaptic strength, which represents its importance and which is set at a random value. Each neuron adds up the signals coming into it. If the combined signal exceeds a particular threshold, the neuron fires and send a signal to its output connection; if the combined input signal does not exceed the threshold, the neuron does not fire, and its output is zero. The output of each neuron is randomly connected to the inputs of the neurons in the next layer. There are multiple layers (generally three or more), and the layers may be organized in a variety of configurations. For example, one layer may feed back to an earlier layer. At the top layer, the output of one or more neurons, also randomly selected, provides the answer.
The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil
What hit me as I was reading this was how eerily close is society (as in human society) to a neural net. Think about it. Have you ever wondered how there are so many great and worthy causes being fought out there that you are not taking part of? You read, listen, think, and sometimes chat about them (you’re adding up the signals coming into you), but the signals simply do not exceed your (mostly random) threshold, and you don’t “fire”, you don’t act, your output is zero. (Street children and the EFF are the first examples that come to my mind, what are yours?)
Take me, for example: after many years of almost total political apathy, I’m close to releasing a web-app about Mexican Politics — in other words, I’ve become political (!) — because in the previous weeks several inputs conspired (somewhat randomly) to spur me into action. I’m an excited neuron in this weird, tragic brain that is Mexico and I only wish that I can get my next layer of neighboring neurons to fire.
Here’s a parting thought: media (and particularly ads) are the neurotransmitters of the hive mind.