The advent of the global brain

By Chrystia Freeland
September 23, 2011

Get ready for the global brain. That was the grand finale of a presentation on the next generation of the Internet I heard last week from Yuri Milner. G-8 leaders had a preview of Milner’s predictions a few months earlier, when he was among the technology savants invited to brief the world’s most powerful politicians in Deauville, France.

Milner is the technology guru most of us have never heard of. He was an early outside investor in Facebook, sinking $200 million in the company in 2009 for a 1.96 percent stake, a decision that was widely derided as crazy at the time. He was also early to spot the potential of Zynga, the gaming company, and of Groupon, the daily deals site.

His investing savvy propelled Milner this year onto the Forbes Rich List, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion. One reason his is not yet a household name is that he does his tech spotting from Moscow, not a city most of us look to for innovative economic ideas.

Milner was speaking in the Ukranian city of Yalta, at the annual mini-Davos hosted by the Ukrainian pipes baron and art collector Victor Pinchuk (disclosure — I moderated at the event). What was striking about Milner’s remarks was how sharply his tone differed from that of the other participants.

The Americans — among them the economists Lawrence H. Summers and Paul Krugman — were glum about their country’s economic stagnation and its political inability to adopt policies that could end it. The Europeans — a group that included the foreign ministers of Sweden and Poland, and Jürgen Fitschen, who has been named co-chief executive of Deutsche Bank — were worried about the sovereign debt crisis.

Even the Turks and the Indians, whose economies grew more than 8 percent last year, were anxious about uneven development at home, and the threat of economic tsunamis coming from abroad.

Milner’s perspective was entirely different. For one thing, at a time when where you sit so often determines where you stand, Milner almost perfectly represents a global technology elite whose frame of reference is planet Earth. He mostly lives in Moscow, but has recently purchased a palatial home in Silicon Valley. He addressed the Ukrainian conference by video link from Singapore.

From that vantage point, the most pressing issue in the world today isn’t recession and political paralysis in the West, or even the rapid development and political transformation in emerging markets, it is the technology revolution, which, in Milner’s view, is only getting started. Here are the changes he thinks are most significant:

• The Internet revolution is the fastest economic change humans have experienced, and it is accelerating. Milner said that two billion people are online today. Over the next decade, he predicts that number will more than double.

• The Internet is not just about connecting people, it is also about connecting machines, a phenomenon Milner dubbed “the Internet of things.” Milner said that five billion devices are connected today. By 2020, he thinks more than 20 billion will be.

• More information is being created than ever before. Milner asserted that as much information was created every 48 hours in 2010 as was created between the dawn of time and 2003. By 2020, that same volume of information will be generated every 60 minutes.

• People are sharing information ever more frequently. The pieces of content shared on Facebook have increased from 140 million in 2009 to four billion in 2011. We are even sending more e-mails: 50 billion were sent in 2006, versus 300 billion in 2010.

• The result, according to Milner, is the dominance of Internet platforms relative to traditional media. “The largest newspaper in the United States is only reaching 1 percent of the population.” he said. “That compares to Internet media, which is used by 25 percent of the population daily and growing.”

• Internet businesses are much more efficient than brick-and-mortar companies. This was one of Milner’s most striking observations, and a clue to the paradox of how we find ourselves simultaneously living in a time of what Milner views as unprecedented technological innovation but also high unemployment in the developed West. As Milner said, “big Internet companies on average are capable of generating revenue of $1 million per employee, and that compares to 10 to 20 percent of that which is normally generated by traditional offline businesses of comparable size.” As an illustration, Milner cited Facebook, where, he said, each single engineer supports one million users.

• Artificial intelligence is part of our daily lives, and its power is growing. Milner cited everyday examples like Amazon.com’s recommendation of books based on ones we have already read and Google’s constantly improving search algorithm.

• Finally — and Milner admitted this was “a bit of a futuristic picture” — he predicted “the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer.”

More than most of us, Milner understands that changes in what he calls “the offline world” can have real bite: He lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the politics and economy of Russia today are no cakewalk. But, in a year that has seen the Arab Spring and the threat of the collapse of the euro, Milner’s predictions are an important reminder that the most significant revolution may be happening in cyberspace.

 

20 comments

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• The Internet is a revolution in several things, but the economy isn’t one of them. It reduces communication costs for companies that would have to do it some other way, and consumers who would otherwise have to visit shops, but that’s about it.

• Information is being created at the same rate it ever was. We’re just saving a lot more dross than we used to. My brother predicted this as far back as 1988, when he calculated the rate at which storage was being manufactured and therefore at which it needed to be sold.

• We’re sending almost exactly the same amount of email. That six-fold growth is spam.

• Each Facebook engineer does not support a million customers. Facebook’s customers are its few thousand advertisers, not its millions of visitors.

• Artificial intelligence has been five years away for sixty years. The last time I saw a book or DVD recommendation, for example, the vendor had simply regurgitated my purchases back at me. If you see something intelligent in what they recommend to you, that’s merely a testament to your broadly unexceptional taste (no offence intended).

• The global brain was previously marketed as the semantic web, and was supposed to arrive by 2005 at the latest.

The cynic might observe that someone who is participating in the second Internet bubble has every incentive to be overly optimistic about the state of the Internet. I couldn’t possibly comment, having cashed in my chips some years ago….

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Interesting perspective on the direction the internet might take us. Rather sounds like a vision of the Borg from Star Trek.

But it’s just as probable that due to the exploding human population and the growing disparity between rich and poor, the proliferation of world wide slums and our natural propensity to war, much of humanity will be wiped off the face of the planet along with the support systems necessary to maintain the internet and the global brain; that it along with ourselves will pitter slowly into extinction just like 99% of the life that ever lived on this planet has done.

Posted by ronryegadfly | Report as abusive

All of this was trite ten years ago.

Posted by ceilingcrash | Report as abusive

An interesting take on ‘the disappearing middle’. We no longer need sales people, or middle managers, or middle anything. Nor do we need the traditional media.

An example: in New York, Wall Street has been ‘occupied’ by protesters. The traditional media has boycotted the event (although if even two tea-party wankers had shown up it would have been above the fold) but through streaming media and Facebook, who cares?

The same thing occurred in Wisconsin this past winter. Traditional media were very slow to expose the excesses of Gov. Walker. Real-time updates were available via Twitter and Facebook.

So, the middle is disappeared as the ‘Submit’ button gets its work-out.

The real question is what do we do for the displaced middle without seeing revolution?

Posted by snowman2795 | Report as abusive

Years ago Omni magazine predicted we would be plugging into a central data base at night. We would then upload/download our day’s thoughts. So here we are. One click away from losing our individuality at the portal. Interesting how “collapse of the Soviet Union” is used universally instead of the “defeat of Russia”. If you never lost then I guess it’s still on. But yes, it was a collapse that many saw coming. Just as we in America saw the financial collapse coming but were seemingly helpless to prevent it. When is China gonna run out of customers? Could be the same day as FB. Economy based or supported by bytes is also one click from Anonymous-like walls. When THAT piece of sky falls it may be a lot like the recent NASA junk. As unpredictable but much larger so who can dodge “the collapse” or the next black swan?

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

Think in terms of 20 year quanta. From 1973 when Vint Cerf starts creating tcp/ip to 1993 when the first effective web server gets deployed. From 1993 to 2013 when tablets will pretty much be the future (for a while). Next gen is gadgets, iPhone/pads/who knows. Wireless is probably the sleeper tho. The old RBOCs, now mostly defunct, blew their chance to lay fiber the last 1/4 mile. The world needs infinite free bandwidth. Machine cycles are pretty much free now, software is close, packets will be free in the next 20.

I think you are wrong on the economic elite tho. Markets are getting increasingly efficient, and the JP-Goldmans are doing what they do because the old easy margins are gone, driving them to ever higher risk. The rich will get richer, but it won’t be easy.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

The recent Facebook moves and technology comes at the cost of – reckless disregard for people’s privacy information and will force members to drop-off for altenatives – some similar outcomes we recently have seen with Netflix.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Eyes wide open. Listen to this guy. He’s totally right.

Posted by Krowster | Report as abusive

Milner has a keen mind, and the money.

Posted by Bluesome | Report as abusive

The shared mind is not new concept. A human society has worked as a superorganism since the times of Gilgamesh. More information about it can be found from the works of Castaneda (inorganic beings), U.G. Krishnamurti (shared mind, society/culture as the real owner of any ‘human’ thought). You can also read more about the struggle of being individual instead of building stone of shared mind in my blog: kordo.blogspot.com)
However, today, there are two revolutions going on:
1st, the smaller cultures will be replaced by global culture, thus global mind; and
2nd, the technology makes this mind work with speeds never seen in history.
The fruits of this are seen already today but in its fullest are to be seen perhaps after 10..20 years because this is the lifespan of human generation, still remaining the buildingstone of (global) society.
And, few more things to say:
- the Singularity, it is already here, it is happening under our own eyes, except that we are unable to see things when under pressure of everyday lief.
- think about ants and bees as a model for global human society (lifeform able to populate life to other planets)

Posted by kordo | Report as abusive

Technology improves each individual’s life. Sorry, everyone, there is no global brain. There is no one inside your head but you. If you let someone control your thoughts, it is your choice, your life, your funeral. I love technology, but I’m used to thinking for myself and I intend to stay that way. If you think you will be happy being an ant or a bee, remember there are thousands of grunt bees and ants who toil thanklessly for the glory of the queen. Is that what you want, or do you want to be the queen and run it all? Anyone who touts the global brain is really talking about controlling people on a massive scale, a scale that even Stalin could not have imagined, though Stalin’s policies resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people. Good luck, you will need it.

Posted by iskeen | Report as abusive

Half the world lives on a dollar or two a day. Hey…let’s give every starving child in Africa an Apple computer. That way they can be “creative” and be empowered to change the world. What a load of crap.

Posted by scarr34 | Report as abusive

Regret to say but this article doesn’t have much substance to it as most of what’s stated already exists and doesn’t add much to the future outlook as it may seem.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Ms Freeland continues to write heady and intellectually distant articles concerning economics, the internet and the future. More than anything she is just plain guessing really. Sure, the internet has had an impact on the media rags, who now have some merciless competition from the free-spieling internet — and all for free. Well, of course the internet will win!!

But there is still alot of garbage info on the internet, as well as garbage in the media(Murdoch et al). You will still have to use your own individual brain to sift the truth from lies. News access has indeed improved, but the lies and agendas never stop whether its paper or internet that you read — it’s all about control and THAT never changes. To establish the truth, to reach an accurate summation of events, the internet cannot do that for you.

You will still have to use your own individual brain and not some possibly tainted or agenda-ridden “Global Brain” from the internet to help you, since truth and validation are always the big sister and brother to the truth.

Plain and simple.

Posted by slowsmile | Report as abusive

And what a wonderful opportunity for infestation with errors, stupidity and madness would that super-intelligence of his be. :D

Posted by maskin | Report as abusive

Do you expect the guy who sank $200 billion into Fecebook, say “oops that was dumb” or blabber about “new efficiencies”??
I want to see one Fecebook user who’s quality of life had increase; e.i. longer vacation time, better health, bigger paycheck.
US standard of living is 15% lower today than it was in 1970, so much for a miracle of Internet…

Posted by 74LS08 | Report as abusive

@ Ian_Kemmish

I liked your comments better than the article, which wasn’t bad. You were “spot on” on all points but left out two.

1) 2 Billion people are on-line today, that will double in 10 years.

2) 5 Billion devices now, 20 Billion in 10 years.

Even if everything you are saying is true (Facebook’s a joke, more spam than ever, AI is bovine scat, etc…) – those two reasons alone are motive enough to be highly bullish.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

Just a word to most of the commentators: A pessimist is somebody who complains about the noise when opportunity knocks….

@Juri Milner: Thanks ! Always thought I was alone on this idea ! Wow, Juri, great job & vision + one, that even earns big money!

I don’t think that term “global brain” stands for “sucking the individuality & brain” out of anybody, @iskeen, & @Mott – there’ll always be abuse of any form in life because its apparently one of the favorite traits of humanity. I myself rather coincide with the last words of @Kordo re. ants & bees:

Whether we like it or not, we – the “humans” – fall under the category of “swarms”. Our intelligence & civilisation was formed by joint efforts. Should anything happen that would deprive us of electricity, we’d be thrown back to caveman-age within seconds, including the outcrops – meaning that the human brain will directly opt for version 0.01 & social behaviour will be governed by “eat, or be eaten” & its obvious consequences.

There is not ONE human that “knows it all” who could reactivate “civilisation”.

The only chance we have IS a “collective memory”, a “global brain”. Plus, I do not think that we – as “collective intelligence” – have got a lot of time left.

As “intelligent form”, we’re totally stuck right now, socially & politically. Human brains are just not capable of developing fast enough to meet the challenges ahead.

Especially in view of the overwhelming “modern” philosophy, to “leave the troubles behind” & “be happy”, life “all-inclusive”, “hamburger-religion” and the such …..

My personal opinion: The “Global Brain”/”Collective Memory”-theory is a first step in the right direction. Goal should be a democratic WORLD GOVERNEMENT and the only media & CHANCE we have at hand for now, is the Internet. From the experience we’ve had with the Internet by now, I do not think that the outcome will be anything near as negative as Orwell predicted.

Given that the “intellectual crowd” finally starts fighting.

So let’s NOT complain about the noise….

Posted by apophises | Report as abusive

@maskin: yeah, you’re so right! But if you allowed it & made it “legal”, who would bother ?

Posted by apophises | Report as abusive

The Global Brain ‘already’ exists in nature – in that the infant brain is delivered ‘out of the box,’ as it were, un-accessorized. Immediately after, however, (and perhaps even in the womb?) parents, care-givers, peers and a host of other actors begin the natural process of accessorizing the newborn with the provincial characteristics needed to maximize the potential for survival in its present environment: language, culture, beliefs, prejudices, and myriad other social and intellectual delineators and constrictors. Ironically these very accoutrements, while ensuring inter-cultural harmony, have also been ultimately responsible for the most xenophobically-driven, egregious acts of horror and inhumanity ever recorded throughout history.

The Global Brain stands in stark contrast, accessorized to reason expansively vs. provincially. By nature it understands ‘why’ others behave and believe as they do. Two and one-half millennia ago Aristotle coined the word ‘ecumenism,’ referring to a world under one roof. Similarly, Yuri’s ultimate vision reaches far, far beyond the disappointments of wealth and power. Those sad eyes betray an ‘innate’ human longing: a humankind truly and ultimately ecumenical in nature.

Jon Mkl Sherry
Campaign for American Kids

Posted by Sherrythere | Report as abusive