Being & Having In Beautiful Intelligence

by stephenpalmersf

There is a lot of activity in my novel Beautiful Intelligence. In the shattered remains of Europe and America – dark and dismal after some unmentionable economic collapse – people rush around after this, that and the other; not just the main characters, but, seemingly, everyone. This near-future world is a busy place.

In modern times we can confuse busyness with activity, but most busyness these days is disguised passivity. As long ago as the seventeenth century, the philosopher Spinoza considered human desires to be either active or passive, with the former rooted in the true human condition and the latter in internal or external distorting conditions – pathological conditions as we would say these days. Thus, for Spinoza, activity, joy, reason and freedom are all connected by being, as are such opposites as powerlessness, sadness, irrationality and slavery, though they are linked by possessing. But Spinoza’s extraordinarily modern conclusion is that to be driven by irrational desires is a form of mental illness, whereas mental wellbeing is founded in activity, reason, and joy in life. For Spinoza, mental health is the outcome of an active life in the being mode. Greed and power-lust are for him forms of insanity, a form of pathological having, of possession, even though greed and power-lust are in part social constructs. Spinoza’s is a remarkably modern framing of such concepts.

The irony is that in our technology-infused world truly active people are often considered outsiders, whereas consumers, people ‘on the property ladder,’ believers in advertising etc are considered the norm. But actually these latter groups are utterly passive, and basically ill. And perhaps that is where a lot of today’s depression and ennui come from.

In Beautiful Intelligence I portrayed two groups of researchers, led by a formerly married couple, Leonora and Manfred Klee, the former in charge of the AI group and the latter in charge of the BI group. My plan for this novel was, through the stories of these groups, to compare and contrast two modes of thought in the field of artificial intelligence – the mode which believes computing power is the fundamental aspect and the mode which considers social interaction to be the fundamental aspect. But there are other modes of analysis which may prove interesting to readers of this novel, and its sequel No Grave For A Fox.


Leonora is criticised by Dirk Ngma in the following speech: “You know autistic savant? … Yeah, da autistic savant, his mind is concrete. No generalisation. Little or no social skill. Safety in da lack – in, what you say… in exactitude. Exact is safe.”

But this assessment by the perceptive Dirk is rejected by Leonora: Why did she have the sensation of losing control? Was the genie out of the bottle? If so she had to put it back, but she did not know how; and she was just one woman. She did know however that she did not want anybody to help her. The AIteam was her vision. And Zeug was hers.

Leonora exists in the passive mode, despite the apparent activity of her group. She possesses Zeug, which is her reason for living. She does not wish to grant Zeug its freedom, nor does she want the members of her team to feel sufficient freedom to change the path of the research. She exists in the having mode: possessing, insecure, limiting the members of her team. Even the philosophy of the AIteam is hers alone – and that, of course, is why Dirk eventually leaves: “See, I know da score with da BIteam. I know how differ from your ex. Da AIteam, dey create one intelligence, make best computer dey can. At first, I go with dat. It make sense. But den, t’ings, hmmm, dey change… I see Zeug – he Leonora’s artificial intelligence – I watch him go rogue. He like autistic superman. He got no society.” “You mean, society like the bi’s?” “Yes! Da beautiful intelligence. I see dat. I like dat notion. Zeug go mental ’cos he got no brothers, sisters. Dat Leonora’s big mistake.”

Manfred, on the other hand, while far from perfect, does avoid Leonora’s error. He lives much more in the being mode: “Oh, yes,” he said, “now we’ve got to stimulate [the bi’s]. Give them problems, dilemmas. Make ’em sweat. They’ve got to start being stressed. Then they’ll understand one another. They’ll have no damn choice!” He stood up and grabbed Joanna’s arms, dragged her to him. “Yeah, you see now?” “It could be a society,” Joanna breathed. “I do see.”

Right from the start Manfred wants to give the nine bi’s their freedom. He wants them to develop consciousness by freely interacting with one another, so that, like human beings over hundreds of thousands of years, they acquire consciousness through the process of using themselves as exemplars to understand the behaviour of the others: They’ve got to start being stressed. Then they’ll understand one another. They’ll have no damn choice!

Manfred also grasps the importance of love in his plans: What about love? You can’t detect that, you can’t prove it exists, but you know it when you feel it.” He shrugged. “Some things are like that. Emergent properties. It could be that we’ll never know for sure if the bi’s have subjective experiences. But my hunch is that we’ll know when we see it… when we feel it.”

Joanna is uncertain: “That is not science, though.” To which Manfred responds: … you never knew [your] chimps were conscious, did you? Because you’re not a chimp, in chimp society.” He gestured at the bi’s and said, “This is the same. We can’t get around the fact that they’re artificial. But they got bodies and no direct access to anything. They got a society, including us… they could become human – maybe. Damn, Jo, this is the best chance. And we’ll bring it to the world.

In Spinoza’s eyes, Leonora would be the mentally ill, ‘suffering’ person of the pair. She is in thrall to her own pathological desires – for success, for admiration, almost for glory. She sees Zeug not only in terms of the technology, but in terms of her need to beat her former husband in the race to achieve an artificial consciousness. Zeug is a thing to her, an object, not an active entity. Manfred, though he also craves the achievement of artificial sentience, is much more laissez-faire about the whole thing, and in fact is motivated in no small part by pure intellectual curiosity. He is prepared to risk setting up an uncontrollable artificial society of his bi’s – and towards the end of the novel he begins to pay the inevitable penalty of such free thinking, as the opaque, impenetrable bi’s begin to act in ways he never imagined possible. Leonora on the other hand, though she is stimulated by the challenge of artificial consciousness, is never free enough to conceive of anything outside her plan. Yet Manfred – as the very first action of his shown in the novel – does a startling, innovative thing: Manfred Klee studied the cables linking the nine globular bi’s into a circle. One by one he took the cables and cut them with a scissors.

Aritomo Ichikawa is by the end of the novel well aware of the mistakes made by his former researchers: “But [separating the bi’s] was [Manfred’s] stroke of genius, do you not see? Until that day they were networked, able to apprehend one another directly. There is even evidence that they worked as a gestalt identity, though, I confess, the evidence is uncertain. The evidence may have been generated by a rogue computer, for example.” “A gestalt?” said Leonora. “Composed of nine individuals,” Aritomo said. “But human beings do not apprehend one another directly. What I see in my mind’s eye is visible only to me. We apprehend one another indirectly, through such means as language and emotion.”

Aritomo however also lives much more in the having mode, since he is controlled by power within hierarchy, by national pride, and by other base motives. Aritomo is a learner, yes; but his learning is acquisition, and he possesses his knowledge rather than existing freely with it. Aritomo is not a teacher, unless it is to assist functionaries like Ikuo Amano inside his own corporation for the advancement of that corporation. I wrote this relationship very much in the manner of a frightened, insecure apprentice in thrall to the perceived genius of his master. Aritomo is a genius; but he is a callous genius entirely on his own terms, which anyway are mostly dictated by his home nation. In some reviews I received criticism about my portrayal of the Japanese characters (“inscrutable baddies”), but I think it was rather wide of the mark; they may be “baddies,” but they’re certainly not inscrutable.

My own favourite character in the book is Dirk Ngma, and that basically is the reason he reappears in No Grave For A Fox. Dirk lives much more in the being mode of life than the having mode – no man hypnotised by his own brilliance or by the perceived brilliance of his team would leave it to join the opposition. Actually Dirk is a bit of a freebooter, motivated, like Manfred, by intellectual curiosity. I envisaged him as a carefree, weatherbeaten kind of man. He is tempted by the solo life, i.e. by a life free of the dead weight of the nexus, which does everything it can to make human beings passive. Dirk’s open and honest interrogation of Indigo at the end of the novel illustrates his essential motives, which are of human curiosity, albeit in a difficult environment.

Politics is implied in Beautiful Intelligence. Active participation in political life requires the maximum amount of decentralisation throughout the spheres of politics, industry and commerce. Fascism – overt as in the 20th century, or covert as in the technophilic, advertising-conveyed invisible fascism of the 21st century – can only exist in large scale societies. We still live with the idea that nation states are normal, even desirable. They are not. In Beautiful Intelligence the situation in our part of the 21st century is if anything worse, with top-heavy Pacific Rim corporations making all the mistakes of the West – not least in the Ichikawa Corporation. Aritomo Ichikawa is unaware that fascism is unavoidable in such organisations – not that he cares. He has fallen for the lie. His people are sheep, and his corporate plans make their passivity the dominant mode of their lives, as he shows when he says to Indigo: “Truth is for dreamers. I am a man of action. In this world, action is what matters.”

No. Aritomo’s concept of action is busyness – passive activity. Dreamers by their nature are never passive.