Most people agree the internet is not consciously alive (though my two-year old daughter, who's addicted to internet games, disagrees). Currently, the internet accepts inputs and is pretty good at producing outputs, depending on browser, apps, hardware, search engines, coding factors, and, of course, the people using it.
The scary fact, though, is that on a long enough timeline, the many billions of operations on the internet every second will no longer just be following pre-described patterns, but will begin to evolve on their own. To me, the question of whether the internet will become self-aware is not if it will happen, but when.
Most any system that grows in complexity will eventually reach some organized and possibly self-aware consciousness, whether by pure randomness or direct influence from other intelligences. For the internet, my guess is conscious birth will happen sooner than we think. The human mind, after all, evolved from amino acid reactions that comprise our DNA.
The essence of molecular chemistry (and physics for that matter) is that one type of stuff reacts with another type of stuff when mixed together. That reaction—so long as organized with some sophistication—creates the nebulous phenomenon of life. If there's enough complexity, direction, and growth—such as the massively sprawling internet possesses—self-aware consciousness could come after that.
Why don't aliens just kill off our species if humans could harm the universe? The answer is: We're probably worth something
That's not the only reason I think the internet will become alive, however. More likely, the internet will become alive because of aliens.
There are 20 billion planets in our galaxy that might be habitable, and lots of them have had a multi-billion year head start over Earth to produce intelligent life. To believe we are alone in the universe—or that we are the most intelligent species out there—is pure egomania. Many statisticians and scientists would bet the farm that humans are not alone in the universe, nor are they the most advanced species.
Extraterrestrial intelligences are likely interested in the internet on Earth, probably because it's an easy way to monitor and even mass control human beings. And by Jehovah, we might need to be controlled soon, since humans are getting smart enough to do some serious damage to the universe's real estate—see Stephen Hawking's warning that humans could theoretically destabilize the Higgs Boson, affecting the entire solar systems and even swallowing the universe whole (though he notes we would need a particle accelerator larger than Earth to do it). We're a species that's become so advanced, we don't just have the power to blow ourselves to smithereens with our 25,000 live nuclear weapons, but even muck up the whole universe with our particle colliders.
So there's plausible reason for advanced extraterrestrial intelligence to beam some advanced programming code or virus from a far-off system that would reprogram our internet to do its bidding—one that is super-intelligent, could closely watch us, and could shut us down before we do anything stupid. After all, everything is online these days in some way or another—whether it be government secrets, the latest AI algorithms by engineers, or internal CERN emails about secretive experiment dates.
Some will ask: Why don't aliens just kill off our species if humans could harm the universe? The answer is: We're probably worth something. We might be needed experiments. We might be the chosen caretakers of the jewel Earth (pretty shitty ones). We might be the aliens' offspring.
Let's not forget, despite our brains only weighing three pounds, there are more possible synaptic connections in it—and therefore varying thoughts—than all the computer switches combined on Earth. Collectively—let's say into a hive mind—human beings may be potentially far smarter than we realize. That makes us potentially valuable.
(If all this sounds insane, consider that a few billion people on Planet Earth hold various End-of-the-World beliefs that endorse apocalyptic horrors—such as an omnipotent God coming to Earth and reigning fire from the heavens, saving the good while eternally torturing the wicked. Extraterrestrials giving artificial superintelligence to the internet so it can keep tabs on us is hardly more fantastical than that.)
Whatever happens, it's important to remember there are at least 100 billion galaxies out there—and the actual number may be as high as a trillion galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, has about 500 billion stars and planets in it, of which Earth is just a single lonesome rock. In short, stranger things have happened than the internet realizing it's alive.
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.