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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Jeff Stibel on the Internet as a Brain

Jeffrey Stibel is the CEO of and a brain scientist and author. At his blog, he talks about The Internet & the Brain. He once told BusinessWeek, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and be proud of your mistakes. At the end of the day learning and getting experience and getting advice from others shouldn’t be seen as a weakness, it should be seen as a positive.”


What are the similarities between the internet and the brain, and what is a shortcoming in the analogy, if any?

The analogy is really quite different than what most people think. Most people assume I mean computers and AI. But that is really a small part of it. The Internet is really two innovations put together. The first is the telegraph; the second the computer. With the two combined, you have the ability to process information, store information and share or communicate that information. That is essentially what the brain does (or higher level brain functioning). The Internet is equivalent to our brain’s neural networks: neurons, like computers, connected to billions of other neurons through axons and dendrites (think phone and broadband lines). That is the hardware side of the analogy.

The software side is really The World Wide Web. The brain has layers of complexity built on top of its neurons and neural networks. The most important are our semantic networks that enable memory. This is very similar to the way the World Wide Web works on top of the Internet. As you know hypertext is really the underlying current of the web, and that creates a very integrated structure of knowledge. And if Berners-Lee has his way (and I think he will), the web will actually become a semantic network.

In the analogy, is the user working on their computer (like by emailing, creating websites, or reading a blog) part of the neuron?

No more than you are part of my brain right now as we have this conversation. To be sure, we are feeding the brain knowledge and information; communicating with it – but we are not “part of it.” The keyboard is a communication device, as are our mouths. Of course, there is a concept f a “global brain” but that is a whole different matter...

How does the internet-as-a-brain think then – if it does think?

Well, take a look at some of the predictive algorithms out there, such as Amazon and Netflix. Are they thinking or processing information? Tough question and it really makes us question what we mean by thinking. Turing (the inventor of the modern day computer and AI) said at it means to think is for another person to believe that you are thinking. If that is the criteria, my mom certainly thinks that Amazon is thinking (she actually thought that people were giving her recommendations.). Yahoo and other search engines used to have people suggesting sites through category browsers but that has been replaced by “smarter” programs such as the algorithms at Google. There is “thinking” going on all over the Internet.

We as internet users feed this thought process with our actions, right? For instance, if I buy Book X and then Book Y on Amazon the same day, perhaps I strengthen Amazon’s “related” recommendation between Book X and Y.

Absolutely, just as we do with other people. Remember that people are infinitely smarter because they interact with other people and the environment around us.

On your blog you also mentioned that websites are the memory. Are there analogies between accessing the memory in terms of how the brain works, and how the web works? One of the most common “memory access” approaches is using a search engine, it seems...

It should come as no surprise that search (and retrieval) is the underlying function behind our ability to think. Storing memory is irrelevant if we cannot logically retrieve it. And that is why the best search engines are both the gateway to the web and so powerful. Google’s dominance is because of this.

In Google results, pages which are often linked to on the web receive a higher ranking. To continue with the brain analogy, is there a likeliness with how humans remember, too?

Yes. Popularity of memories and neurons alike determine relevance. Google’s algorithms, pagerank in particular, mimic the mind. There is an old adage in neuroscience that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” That is the insight behind pagerank: “Websites that wire together, fire together.”

In the brain, neurons work together to form thoughts, don’t they? But on the web, we have competing websites, right... people fighting for attention, and sometimes even spamming for attention.

We see the same thing on the brain that you mention on the web. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist, came up with an idea for how ideas evolve in people’s mind: he calls it the selfish meme. Memes, it turns out, behave very similarly to websites. They are competitive, fight for space and visibility, and often spam for attention (whether it is a credit card website or an annoying little jingle that just won’t leave us alone).

Interesting. Could you give us an example of a meme spam tactic in the brain?

Sure. How about a particularly annoying song? This morning, one of my son’s toys was playing the song “Who let the dogs out.” It stuck in my head and I accidentally hummed it during a meeting this morning. Five people left that meeting humming it and passed it on to others. And now, it is yours (and our readers) to deal with. Viral marketing at its finest...

For those dealing with search engine optimization, are there lessons to be learned from approaching the net as a brain?

Yes. Follow the brain. Google’s algorithms really are very similar to what you see on the brain. All of these SEO companies (and I run a few of them) focus on optimization instead of building a great meme. But Google changes their algorithms more than once a day on average so how can you optimize to that? But if you build a great meme, a unique website that sets you apart in a category that you can dominate, you will always end up ahead. Frankly, some of the best SEO companies (Bruce Clay and The Search Agency for example) give just this advice. But there are many others who think they understand how search works but fail miserably because you really need to know how the brain works.

To avoid misunderstandings, how would you define the idea of the “global brain”, as you mentioned earlier, as opposed to your school of thought?

The “Global Brain” really has little to do with what I am proposing. The concept is about connecting humans through knowledge and information so I guess it is certainly related to the Internet. At the highest level the concept considers all of us on this planet a single organism (a Global Brain). Other interpretations include a network of universal knowledge, where all of the world’s information comes together. This was H.G. Wells’ concept and I guess is being realized in some way through the likes of Wikipedia.

You also mentioned the Semantic Web. One might get the impression it didn’t take off so far in terms of the proposals by the World Wide Web Consortium, or is that a wrong impression? And what makes you think will lead to more mainstream adoption in the future?

The Semantic Web has not had great success yet. There are a number of reasons for that but the most important one is there hasn’t been a commercial need for it. Berners-Lee is a big proponent of the concept and I am as well. It will revolutionize the Web but we are years away from it taking route.

The reason it will be necessary and ultimately successful is that the Web, like all complex networks, will become increasingly hard to manage over time. One way to simplify things is to create additional dimensions or depth. The semantic Web essentially allows one to layer additional dimensionality – context, ambiguity, meaning – to web pages, links and networks. This will open up whole new worlds for the web.

You mentioned in your blog you were participating in the technology behind AdSense. Could you elaborate on that?

Sure. My team from Princeton, Brown University and worked on a technology called WordNet, invented by one of our colleagues, the eminent Psychologist George Miller. WordNet is a semantic network and that is now the backbone behind Adsense. Google bought a company called Applied Semantics (also known as Oingo), which used the WordNet technology. It enables Google to understand web pages and provide related advertisements.

Which people and sites do you follow, and which books would you suggest for an overview to be able to better grasp your ideas we discussed here?

Anything by Dan Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter or Steve Pinker will give you a great understanding of the psychology of mind and how it relates to computers. Ray Kurzweil is always fun as well.

[Hat tip to Joan and Siggi! This interview was done in Google Talk with some questions via email. Edited for clarity.]


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