The Emergence of a Hive Mind: Should We Worry?

The term “hive mind” refers to the apparent intelligence that emerges at the group level in some social species, particularly insects like honeybees and ants. An individual honeybee might not be very bright (although that’s debatable), but the honeybee colony as a collective might be very intelligent.

Science fiction is replete with depictions of higher-intelligence organisms forming a hive mind. One canonical example is the Borg from Star Trek. The Borg assimilate other intelligent organisms like humans into the “Collective,” but in so doing obliterate the individuality of the organisms they are assimilating.

Clearly the assimilation of humans into a hive mind is supposed to be a bad thing, according to the writers of Star Trek. The same goes for the writers of Doctor Who: the Cybermen pose a very similar threat as the Borg, capturing and “upgrading” humans so that they lose emotion and the ability to think individually (in fact there’s a comic in which the Borg and Cybermen team up).

These depictions of a potential future for humanity raise a number of questions. The first is whether humans are even capable of forming a hive mind, and if so whether it is likely that they will. Second, must the individual be erased as it is subsumed into a collective consciousness? Third, if individuality must be lost, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Last year, io9 ran an article about the potential for humans to form a hive mind. Several scientists weighed in on the question and concluded that in order to get a hive mind, humans would have to evolve greater cooperation and division of labor. That is, after all, how we think honeybees did it evolutionarily. But I want to put this into more fundamental terms. Why is it that greater cooperation and division of labor would lead to the development of a hive mind?

The simple answer is because that’s how neural networks work. One plausible theory of consciousness is that of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, whose information integration theory proposes that consciousness emerges wherever you have a system that is simultaneously functionally specialized and integrated, so that specific modules process specific kinds of information, but the output of those modules gets integrated across the entire network. According to Tononi, consciousness is the information that gets integrated across the system. This is what you see in the thalamocortical network: various modules are specialized to process certain types of stimuli like faces or speech, but the “output” of those modules gets integrated across the entire cortex and thalamus. And that’s basically what honeybees do: individual honeybees have very specific tasks like brood rearing, hive maintenance, foraging, or defense, but they share information with one another in a highly integrated fashion whenever there’s something the entire colony needs to be aware of (like where to find food).

So, in order to form a hive mind, humans have to act more like an integrated neural network. There are many forms that can take. In a sense, it’s already happening thanks to cell phones and the Internet. Careers are becoming increasingly specialized and we share almost all our information on the web or email, phone, text, conferences, etc. So humans do exhibit simultaneous specialization and integration. One limiting factor in forming a mind, however, is time: it takes a while for us to figure out anything that is relevant to all of humanity (or just a large group of people), and it takes a long time to communicate what we’ve found to everyone. One example is climate change: how long did it take us to figure out it’s happening, and how much longer before the information about climate change really sinks in across the board and we do something about it as a collective? One possible way to circumvent this limitation is through wireless brain-to-brain communication, which isn’t that far off in terms of available technology but might be quite far off in terms of practical applicability.

Now the real question is, what happens to our individuality if we give rise to a hive mind? Are our individual minds obliterated? Or is it just business as usual while a collective intelligence supervenes on our brains, unbeknownst to us? Giulio Tononi (of the information integration theory) actually thinks that the individual consciousness winks out when the group forms a truly integrated whole. At a lecture last year Tononi said that if the United States ever came to a point where it, as a nation, integrated more information than any of the individuals that make up the nation, those individuals would cease to be conscious. This happens to be one element of his theory I don’t like, simply because it doesn’t seem intuitively plausible: couldn’t the United States integrate more information than I do as an individual, even while I, as an individual, continue to integrate a lot of information? If so, I should remain conscious. And it seems that the degree of information integration in a bee colony rivals that of the individual honeybee, and yet individual honeybees certainly seem conscious. So I don’t take Tononi’s assertion too seriously.

But, say that we do lose our individual consciousness if a hive mind emerges. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Clearly our gut reaction is yes, because we value our own mentality. But suppose it were the case that the collective human mind could receive more utility than could all individual humans combined. I’m getting this idea from the notion of a “utility monster,” proposed by philosopher Robert Nozick as a critique of utilitarianism. According to utilitarianism, we would be morally obligated to sacrifice our own utility in the service of the utility monster, whose utility in being served outweighs our suffering in serving it. Some philosophers see this as a great example why utility is not the thing to be thinking about when it comes to morality. Utilitarians, on the other hand, bite the bullet and say that we should in fact suffer for this being if the utility it gains is greater than our suffering. In terms of the hive mind, utilitarians might say that we should allow ourselves to be subsumed into a collective consciousness if that consciousness can reap greater utility than all of us as individuals combined.

Personally, I hope this won’t be a problem. Nor do I think it will be a problem. There must be a way for a higher collective consciousness to emerge without turning us into the Borg. Maybe a hive mind will only use a small portion of each person’s brain, which would allow people to carry out their lives as usual. And maybe that collective mind would be far more intelligent than any single human and could call us into action when all of humanity is threatened – again, without destroying our individuality in the process.

Maybe. One can hope.


2 thoughts on “The Emergence of a Hive Mind: Should We Worry?

  1. I also disagree with Tononi’s conclusions. Not all information flowing through a system of processing nodes is necessarily associated with a conscious precept, and I think that’s an important exception to the rule. As long as each processing node has the capability to perform independent computations in parallel, swarm intelligence and individuality can be kept separate. If we consider humans as individual processing nodes, we’d only have to devote some of our time to a Borg-like hive mind so we can still maintain our individual identities.

    One could argue that this is already happening. We live in a society in which sophisticated communication technology has allowed an enormous amount of information to be exchanged between humans across the globe. The internet (esp. social media) is leading to a lot of information synchronization between humans everywhere. Who writes and maintains wikipedia articles? Who decides what is trending on twitter? No one person initiates or controls these phenomena. Instead, they develop on their own as a result of a convergence of a large population of individuals together forming something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

    What’s even crazier is the percentage of these processes which are purely computational. Several economists have pointed to “digital processes talking to other digital processes” as a large contributor to high unemployment rates, because advanced, automated systems are replacing people’s jobs. With the advent of machine learning algorithms doing things like making hiring and executive decisions at data-driven companies (i.e. Google and Amazon), who is to say that Earth’s intelligence isn’t already partially synthetic? Although our society might not yet have the level of integrated information required for human-level consciousness, new developments in our communications infrastructure and machine intelligence will continue to push us towards a single, integrated entity.

    From the perspective of someone who’s unfamiliar with the internet and/or computers, it might seem mysterious to them that we spend so much of our time glued to our screen pressing buttons. If our glazed, Borg-like expressions are any indication, we could be participating in a giant super-intelligence.

  2. I got put into in 2012 or 2013. Knowledge of the hive is rampant through east Texas but everyone is afraid to speak put about it. It’s a form of biohacking called neurohacking that transfers ideas to the wealthy for profit.

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