Interview: Collective intelligence with Alexandra Elbakyan

Reading time: 7 minutes

As a neuroscience student, I need to read lots of research papers. Despite the subscriptions my university pays for in order for students to have access to most scientific journals, I sometimes hit a paywall which I can’t get around without paying quite a bit of money, just to access one article. Lucky for me and thousands of researchers around the world, there is a workaround: Sci-Hub, a website that provides free access to millions of research papers and books. Sci-Hub is a shadow library—it disregards copyright restrictions in order to give a broad public access to chargeable academic literature. It was created by programmer Alexandra Elbakyan (Wikipedia).

Alexandra was born in Kazakhstan in 1988. She studied information security in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, and interned in a few neuroscience labs in Russia and Germany. Her final year of university was dedicated to writing a thesis about brain-computer interfaces, specifically about how we could enter passwords just by thinking of them. In 2014, frustrated by the closed access to research literature, she started working on Sci-Hub, with an instant reaction from the publishing industry: in 2015, Alexandra was sued in the United States by Elsevier, which publishes more than about 500,000 articles in 2,500 journals every year. Elbakyan is currently in hiding due to the risk of extradition, but she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Philosophy of Science in an undisclosed location.

In this short interview, we discussed collective intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, the relationship between consciousness, religion, and communication, the Information Integration Theory, and more. Enjoy the read!

Interview with Alexandra Elbakyan

You started programming at a very early age. One of your ideas was to create a Tamagotchi with artificial intelligence. How did you get that idea?

I wanted to have a pet, but mom did not. So I thought there might be an electronic or robotic version of it. There were toy pets available on the market that could somehow imitate real animals, that could walk and sing. Around the same time, Sony produced their AIBO, a robotic dog with artificial intelligence.

There were also “screenmates” which were popular at the time: animals that lived on your computer desktop, see for example the popular Felix the Cat, the sheep desktop pet, and other screenmates. You could even get a 3D dinosaur on your desktop!

So I wanted to create something similar, a computer pet with artificial intelligence inside, that would be just like the real pet.

That’s amazing. I was fascinated by these “smart pets” as a kid as well. Is that something you still think about?

I do not want to do this anymore, but now I want to apply some artificial intelligence to Sci-Hub database of 84 million research articles.

Talking about Sci-Hub… I think one of your most exciting ideas is the creation of a global brain, where everyone’s consciousness would be connected together via the Internet. Is Sci-Hub a way to get closer to this global network of conscious minds?

Sci-Hub in essence is a tool to connect one brain to another, using research papers as a medium. Using brain-machine interfaces we could possibly connect brains directly to each other, in a neuron-to-neuron way. Then, out of many brains connected directly to each other over the Internet, a big “global brain” will emerge. Sci-Hub is the alpha version of it. It connects the brains of many researchers, but not yet in a direct way.

I love the idea of a global brain. But first, at an individual level… With what you studied at university regarding brain-computer interfaces, and your current knowledge, do you truly believe it will one day be possible to encode a living being’s consciousness into an artificial neural network? In principle, how would that work?

Modern computers do not have enough computational speed to encode and emulate the human brain artificially, and it is hard to do even for animal brains. It’s hard to say if technologies will develop enough to do such emulations, or if it will turn out to be an impossible task.

When people first started cosmic flights, everyone was thinking that in ten or twenty years, we would be flying to Mars everyday and explore other galaxies. But it turned out to be much harder to do than we initially thought. So, in 2020, we still do not travel to Mars every summer. But if that becomes possible, then such an emulated human being is going to be immortal, at least until someone unplugs the computer from the electrical outlet.

The next question would be whether such an electronic human is conscious or not. Does it really have subjective experiences just as we do, or is it nothing more than a computational model? And if it is conscious, another question would be: how can we convert our consciousness from the biological to this artificial neural network, so we can live inside a computer forever?

That raises many philosophical questions. You have a deep interest in neuroscience, computer science, and linguistics, so I want to ask: what’s the relationship between consciousness, religion, and communication?

What do consciousness, religion, and communication have in common? They are all information. Let’s see why. For communication it is obvious. For consciousness, there are two arguments. First, there is the Information Integration Theory of Consciousness developed by Giulio Tononi that helps us to equate consciousness with information. Second, our brain is nothing more than just billions of neurons connected to each other, our consciousness emerges out of their constant communication.

In 2012, I started a Masters program in Public Administration and Governance. I had an idea to get into the government to fix the law. Currently, we have some weird laws, such as copyright laws, that prevent the free distribution of information on the Internet, such as academic papers and books. Such laws must be fixed.

I decided to conduct research about information in medieval and ancient societies such as Ancient Egypt. What I found interesting is that in many ancient religions there were gods of information, such as Hermes, Thoth or Nabu.. Ancient people associated them with speech, writing, and rational knowledge. When we look later in the Bible, the whole World is created by information, or by the Word of God.

You mentioned the Information Integration Theory of Consciousness. In your opinion, what’s the most interesting theory of consciousness?

Currently, we have many theories of consciousness trying to answer the question: what is consciousness? Does the consciousness exist at all or just an illusion? But most theories cannot answer practical questions, such as: can we develop a brain chip that will enrich our consciousness with new qualia, different from vision, sound and other experiences? How could such a brain chip work? Will I be able to experience what is happening in the head of another person if I connect my neurons to their? What kind of connection could allow such experience? In that respect, the Information Integration Theory that I mentioned earlier is a promising theory that could potentially solve these puzzles, and that is more than just abstract thinking.

Practical questions instead of just abstract thinking. By the way, what are you currently working on?

Apart from Sci-Hub, I’m currently studying Philosophy of Science at the graduate level. In my opinion, Open Science is a philosophy!

That should be your mantra! How can people support your work?

With money, the best way to support Sci-Hub is by Bitcoin donation. It seems that you can now buy bitcoins with PayPal, although I did not check how it works. Also, it would help if the topics of Sci-Hub, copyright laws and Open Science were discussed more in the media and so on in a positive way.

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