stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Opinion

Vote boy, get boy

I can’t say I’m surprised by today’s election result.

The Tories are one expression of the national character of England. Whereas in, say, America cultural narcissism is expressed via fact-free faith and an obscene surfeit of goods, and in China it appears through the brutal domination of the Chinese Communist Party, in Britain it is more subtle, more concealed. The English national character, exported with callous determination to the other three nations, is expressed via what is deemed a natural social hierarchy. This is why talk of social mobility in this country is a bit of a joke. There is social mobility, but only for people who conform to the norms of those classes in which it is allowed to be feasible. The unspoken thought is: there should be masters above.

Britain is in some respects a progressive country, but in most respects it is backward, fearful and cowardly. We haven’t had a Labour government in Britain since the 1970s. When Blair got in for three terms later on, that happened because he changed the Labour Party to conform with national norms. Labour became Tory-lite. Corbyn had absolutely no chance of succeeding yesterday because he offered something the British don’t want: radical change, humanity, decency, dignity, fairness and a just society. The British in general have little interest in such things. They have been played by the Tories as they always are – with ease, with a ruthless focus on the specifics of power, and with a kind of malicious, part ironic, part arrogant gaiety. Just like their friends at the Daily Mail, the Tories wanted the Labour and Liberal tribes to hate them, to be appalled by them, to loathe, especially via outraged liberals on social media; and they wanted that loathing to be expressed as loudly as possible. This deliberate polarisation, which as they well know is amplified by the digital world, usually benefits them the lean to the right. Too many anti-Tory liberals fell for it, not least on Facebook.

Tory conduct is a sort of thin-lipped, automatic condescension, which to them seems part of human nature but which in fact was manufactured centuries ago by boys who acquired power through violence. I call it ironic because in the main they’re alienated even from their own delight in what they’ve done over the years. They are the bureaucrats of disconnection.

It was significant that the Tories sowed disbelief even in their own trustworthiness. This was a deliberate ploy, as it was in 2016 in America. In times of distrust in politicians, in fake news and alternative facts, populations tend to the right. They do this because it seems to them that anything new and different is frightening; their national conservatism is expressed. In Britain this is particularly the case, as the Tories well know. Via social media they did their best to tear people from their roots in reality. They will do this for the foreseeable future, and when we get to the stage of deepfake videos this country really will be sunk.

Such sundering from human roots began a decade or so ago in my estimation. The scariest statement of the decade was made by Yuval Noah Harari in his superb 21 Lessons For The 21st Century. In it, he showed that before WW2 there were three main stories: Fascism, Socialism, and Liberal Democracy. Soon Fascism was overthrown, then Socialism, leaving just Liberal Democracy. But now, as he put it, we have no story at all. This is the true nightmare facing humanity. Corbyn put forward a story – a story of humanity, fairness and dignity – but he had absolutely no chance with such a tale. Perhaps he should now move to Finland.

We have a political system fit for the nineteenth century based on a voting system fit for the eighteenth. That the hypocrites of Labour and the hypocrites of the Tories have done nothing to give Britain a fair voting system tells you everything you need to know about this miserable, second-class country. It’s deeply ironic that values which are humane and progressive in modern politics are represented by countries we will soon be sundered from, but, frankly, this country deserves nothing more. I’ve been saying for ages that we don’t merit our place on the permanent council of the U.N. We long ago sank into second class mediocrity, and we have further to fall.

True revolution cannot in my opinion occur except outside the system. Those who try to work within it are moulded by it – hence New Labour. Yes, every few decades something good happens because of historical chance, but the other 99.9% is delivered by the system regardless of political colour. In Britain, that system is top heavy and suitably cloaked in the colours of an imaginary meritocracy.

True revolution follows naturally from changes within individuals, who then, if they’re lucky, manage to change their political and cultural environment. Fighting the Tories through their own system is an utter waste of time, quite apart from being meaningless unless you happen to live in a marginal constituency.

As Dorothy Rowe observed, there are no easy answers in life. You have to work hard, most of all at thinking. But thinking is difficult, and the British are lazy. If they’re offered easy answers they will take them. This is the message of today’s Tory victory. Conservatism is easy. Humanity is difficult.

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The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – Franklin Roosevelt.

The recent election tactics of the Tories made me think of this famous quote. Why did they do something so blatant as to rename their CCHQ Twitter account FactcheckUK? And why have they set up a fake Labour manifesto site, again blatantly? Both of these events have been widely reported, and widely shared on social media, especially on Facebook, where the lion’s share of the election will likely be played out.

What at first sight seems counter-productive is that they were “caught out” so easily. But is that the case? Could they have done both deeds deliberately? It’s counter-intuitive to say so, but, yes, they did do it deliberately, knowing they would be spotted and knowing that a huge fuss would be made about it as a consequence. They were relying on that fuss.

Why? Because, as has been shown by Trump and his kind in America, the way to achieve political success via social media is to erode the public’s confidence in truth and reality. This includes trust in all parties, not least the Tories themselves – the thing that seems so counter-intuitive. But it’s not. In situations where the public’s trust of digital media and politicians in general is low, the Establishment, the right wing, the Tories – whatever you want to call them – will benefit. The Tories will gain from this blurring between reality and fiction, between truth and lies, because in such situations public opinion leans to the right. In times of fear and confusion, people go, however reluctantly, with what seems safest, even if only as the least-worst option.

That Labour have revealed a radical, dazzling, wide-ranging manifesto only plays into the hands of the Tories. This is exactly what they wanted to hear. They want Labour to represent optimism, change, radicalism, because they know that’s exactly what the public in times of distrust and confusion will tend to avoid.

And the Tories want people to discuss and share as widely as possible their blatant lies. It doesn’t matter that they indict themselves. They don’t care about that. They have no scruples and are remorseless in their strategy, playing the British population for every advantage they can get. In the digital world, the right are utterly cynical.

And people are falling for it – voters, the media, news organisations, and those on Facebook.

Worried? You ain’t seen nothing yet. You wait until we have an election with video deepfakes.

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Partial Election 2019

There’s never been a General Election in Britain. All we’ve had are a series of Partial Elections.

That sounds pretty crazy, huh? But think. Britain uses a First Past The Post voting system, which is just about fit for the eighteenth century. This however is the twenty first century. All enlightened nations – most of Europe for instance – use Proportional Representation. Britain, America and Canada use FPTP, and all face totally unfair national elections.

In a Partial Election, only marginal seats are meaningful. Only in a marginal seat does your vote have a point. Take Shropshire, for instance. In the constituency of North Shropshire where I used to live, if I voted Tory the Tory would get in; if I voted Labour the Tory would get in; if I voted Lib Dem the Tory would get in; if I voted Green the Tory would get in; if I voted monster Raving Loony the Tory would get in. If I spoiled my vote, the Tory would get it, and if I didn’t vote the Tory would get in. I think this rural blue situation illustrates quite nicely the concept of the meaningless vote.

This moreover is a situation which both Tories and Labour have supported, and with utter hypocrisy, since the FPTP system benefits them, as the two parties in a two-party system. So much for democracy, you titans of the Left.

In a British Partial Election only marginal seats make a difference. In 2017, the Electoral Reform Society was able to call the results of 368 seats – more than half of Parliament’s 650 – before the election. Is that democracy? No. Meanwhile, 225 constituencies have not changed political hands since before 1950.

This ludicrous system can be changed by PR. PR gives every voter a meaningful task. Yes, it means coalitions afterwards, as we’ve seen in Europe, but isn’t that the point of politics? Talking to one another, making compromises, then arriving at a mutually agreed result.

Sounds like politics to me.

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Apologies

This weekend, events will take place in New Zealand marking the 250th anniversary of the arrival there of Captain Cook, which, because of misunderstanding across a cultural abyss, became a disaster. Maori were killed by Cook’s men during a spiral of cultural non-comprehension and male aggression.

All this, of course, is highly regrettable. It is regrettable that arrogant male colonialists ventured out – in Cook’s case with secret orders regarding the appropriation of land – and killed members of the local population. Even though those men decided that the Polynesian races were “superior” to African races (in part because of their straight hair), they still considered themselves dominant over all: an attitude of gross narcissism, compounded by their overweeningly proud male stance.

When, then, should apologies for such behaviour cease? The British of 2019 are an aeon and a world away from those of Cook’s day. Should we feel guilty for the deeds of those people? Should we also feel guilty for English actions in France during the Middle Ages? Should the English feel guilty for what they did to the Welsh in earlier years? And what about the French themselves, or the Danes? Should they feel guilty for what happened in 1066?

Where do we draw the line?

Personally, although I despise all patriarchal deeds – misogyny, colonialism, genocide, war – including what all British colonialists did, I don’t see the merits of me, via the government, apologising for the deeds of men utterly divorced from myself. If these incidents had occurred in 1969, then yes: formal apology and massive reparations. But 1769? Wouldn’t it make more sense to understand the reasons for the events of that historical era?

The other issue with making apologies for historical events is that it halts the moving-on progress. As a mostly Welsh person who loves Wales, I feel no need for an apology from the English about what was done to the Welsh. So… have regret for such deeds: yes. But most important is understanding. We have to understand the nature of the perpetrators of such deeds so that we can stop those deeds happening again. We need to see men for what they mostly are – little boys – to halt patriarchy. We need to understand the roots in narcissism of racism, misogyny and other forms of prejudice in order to halt them in the present day. Apologising for the misdeeds of people who lived an age and a world away in fact obstructs ethical progress, because it presumes a connection which does not and cannot exist, even on the national, formal scale.

Though I am male and British just like Captain Cook, he is utterly divorced from me. My task is to see through the attitudes of people like him who live in the present day, and to call them out. And such I shall continue to do.

MaoriChief

Analysis?

Recently I was told by an American gentleman that I shouldn’t try to psychoanalyse Donald Trump, because I’m not a psychologist, and because apparently it can never be done at a distance. This individual was of course trying to defend his hero, by the ploy of telling people what they can’t do, using an obscure and controversial paragraph in one medical resource.

I disagree. As Nicholas Humphrey so brilliantly showed in his groundbreaking work The Inner Eye, analysing the behaviour of others “at a distance” is precisely what we do every moment of every day. It’s the foundation of consciousness. We use ourselves as exemplars to understand the behaviour of others, a unique mental trick which has made us what we are today.

In using myself as an exemplar I grasp that Trump is profoundly and malignantly narcissistic. This analysis anyway is generally accepted by professionals and others alike, not least because it is so obvious; it can be elevated from mere hypothesis to theory. But we all do it to one degree or another – we all analyse in order to understand, some less so, some more. Erich Fromm did it to understand the behaviour of Hitler in The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness. Bruno Bettelheim did it to survive as he spent a year in Ravensbruck concentration camp. And I can do it to understand the behaviour of Trump, just as anybody else can.

But people incapable of achieving insight into their own condition because of narcissism not overcome are handicapped. As Plato (and many others) said: ‘Know thyself.’
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Donald Trump Isn’t Stupid

Seems like a crazy statement, doesn’t it? If you look at the proliferation of memes on Facebook for example, Donald Trump is stupid. He’s very stupid. That everybody seems to agree on.

But is he? Is there in fact a more accurate description of what he suffers from, and would it be better if we spread that kind of meme? And, if so, why would that matter?

Among the symptoms of narcissism – that in Trump are malignant, where in most others they are benign – are an obsession with and a drive for power, an inability to accept criticism, an inability to see “other” people and cultures from their particular perspective, with a consequent leaning to racism, misogyny in men, prejudice, etc – and a notable lack of empathy, an inability to be sensitive or compassionate, and a tendency to black-and-white, ie infantile or juvenile thinking. Narcissistic people commonly believe in Destiny or Fate too, and often are unusually superstitious. Most of these symptoms Trump, like other “leaders” who suffered from his extreme form of the narcissistic condition such as Napoleon and Thatcher, shows in profusion.

It is important to realise however that Trump’s condition is not something that developed out of nothing during his lifetime. It is not something that he created, or even aimed for. Rather, the intense narcissism we see in him is that of the child, which in this 70 year old man has never been overcome through normal experience of life. There are likely many reasons for this, but the quality of his parenting must come very high on that list of reasons, if not at the summit. Trump’s outlook on the world is most similar to that of the small boy.

Trump is in fact more than averagely intelligent, in that he is able to manipulate the conditions of his life to his own advantage. Stupid people don’t do that because they can’t. Trump has got to the position he has because he is more than averagely intelligent, commercially and politically.

Stupidity is not narcissism. Narcissism is a far deeper condition than mere ignorance or lack of education. What Trump has done is succeed in a social power hierarchy devised by boys for the use of boys – ie politics – all to his own advantage. It is narcissism which is fuelling his particular brand of behaviour, not stupidity.

You may be thinking, so what? Why does this distinction matter?

Well, it really does matter. If we liberals and lefties are going to make social change so that disaster areas such as Trump, Johnson, Bolsinaro et al do not get their hands on political power, we’re going to have to understand the problem. No human problems have ever been solved by not understanding them. Spreading “Donald Trump Is Stupid” memes across Facebook, for all their occasional hilarity, obscures the problem, stops people considering reality, and obstructs the social development of the human race. These sorts of Facebook memes are setting us back. They are a self-destructive fantasy.

Understanding matters.

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Climate Change

Today is the day after a wave of youth-led climate change protests. So, what am I doing when it comes to climate change?

1. I am vegetarian. The vegetarian diet is easy to move to and makes a big difference to my carbon footprint. A large proportion of greenhouse gases is produced by unsustainable farming practices – beef and lamb especially – carried out on too large a scale. “Small is beautiful.” – E.F. Schumacher.

2. I never travel by air. We do not have the freedom to pollute the atmosphere for the sake of an artificial holidaying lifestyle promoted by international corporations whose purpose is to make money at the expense of the planet.

3. My car use is minimal. I walk wherever I can locally, and when I’m at work.

4. My consumption is minimal. This is a crucial point. The biggest lie promoted by international capitalist corporations is the lie of being a consumer. Supported by advanced psychological techniques, these corporations are destroying the planet to sell rubbish nobody needs. They have deliberate policies of getting people addicted to their products. My minimised consumption includes: clothes, phone, computer. Wherever possible I buy things that are going to last or which can be repaired.

5. Energy use. I make my footfall as light as possible by using energy wisely; even simple things such as switching off lights help. This also applies to water use. I do this at work as well as at home.

6. I never eat burgers etc in any fast food chain, since they are all environmentally unsustainable corporations whose purpose is to exploit people and the planet for gain. I only buy fairtrade tea and coffee.

7. Recycling. I recycle everything that it’s possible to recycle, including by washing plastic/metal at the end of washing-up, so that such items aren’t rejected by recycling plants. I do not have a dishwasher or a tumble dryer. This year I have so far put out my black bin four times owing to the fact that I moved house, but in previous years I put it out twice or three times a year.

8. Support local producers. I buy locally produced honey and locally available free range eggs, thus supporting the local economy, improving my health, and rejecting commercially produced food created at the expense of animals and the natural world by various corporations.

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Halting climate change is a matter of personal responsibility as well as national policy, regulation and law. We all have a duty to see through the lies told by international corporations whose sole purpose is to hypnotise and fool us into buying things and doing things which we don’t need, in order that they can pay money to their shareholders. It’s a matter of clear vision. When I worked for Waterstones the company was floated on the stock market, and every employee was offered shares. I was the only person at my shop who refused to accept them on principle.

Acting on principle is easy once you see through the lies of capitalism.

schu

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 4

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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Having covered consciousness not being a factor of computing power, the impossibility of extracting or linking to parts of consciousness, and the impossibility of uploading or downloading into new bodies, I want to cover a final aspect of SF speculation – the impossibility of creating sentient virtual minds or copies of minds.

This is a staple of much SF, including for instance certain books by Julian May in which Jon Remillard experiences an evolutionary jump, discards his physical form and metamorphoses into his final state as a disembodied brain. But a brain/mind without a body is effectively nothing. Early episodes of Dr Who did a similar thing with the species known as morpho, and the concept is regularly used in much cinema SF. Consciousness however is founded on sensory input, as shown by Nicholas Humphrey (amongst others) in his books Seeing Red and A History Of The Mind. Without sensory input there is nothing supporting the mental model we all carry in our minds. We continually update our model of the world, mostly without being aware of it. Lacking such input there is nothing for consciousness to work with. Sensory deprivation experiments have shown how quick the mind begins to disintegrate if sensory input is missing. “What each species knows of reality is what its senses allow it to construct,” as Dorothy Rowe put it in The Construction Of Life & Death. In other words, any post-death disembodied existence is impossible.

Similarly, in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the AI known as Neuromancer attempts to trap Case inside a cyber-construct, where he finds the “consciousness” of his girlfriend from Chiba City, who was murdered by one of Case’s underworld contacts. But without a body Linda Lee is nothing. The intertwining of body and mind cannot be undone. Such undoing is a false belief, again founded on the religious notion of a separable spirit or soul; it is a mistake to think that consciousness could be extracted and live on after a body’s death. (We can blame Descartes for many modern misconceptions as well as all the modern religions.)

Of course, even though all private mental activity is forever beyond the boundary of external acquisition, public information about such activity is not – just as we have indirect access to other minds but no direct access. I used this point when creating the metaframes of my novel Muezzinland. Metaframes are complex entities of data, but they are not records of minds, rather they are records of the public activity, history and observed character of minds. So, for instance, there could be a metaframe of Mnada the Empress of Ghana, which would collect all her public utterances, her observed character, appearance and her entire life history. This could be animated in the virtual reality of the Aether to create the impression of a copy of the Empress. But such a copy would contain none of the Empress’ private thoughts, and it would not be conscious. It might appear to be conscious through sheer realism, but it never actually would be.

Similar creations exist in my new novel The Autist, where they are known as data shadows. A data shadow is an entity created from the online activity of an individual: personal records, medical records, gaming records, surveillance camera data and so on. As is observed during the novel, such entities can become complex, depending on the amount of data gathered. But a data shadow could never be conscious. It can only exist as an approximation of an individual built up over time from public data.

Conclusion

In The Autist, one of my intentions was to speculate on what might happen should the development of AI continue as it is presently. In this series of blogs I have tried to show that consciousness is a result of evolution by natural selection acting upon physically separate biological creatures living in intense, sophisticated social groups. SF speculation about minds, souls, spirits, software etc being separable and transferable is based on an antiquated, false, imaginary concept, which, because human cultural evolution is slow, still remains to trouble us today.

My speculation takes as its starting point the notion that the sensory channels of the brain and the perceptual channels are separate. Sensation is our creation. There is no chain of causation beginning with something out there in the real world and ending up in the mind with qualia: the redness of red, the pain-ness of pain, etc. This separation and associated processes have been shown to be the case by Nicholas Humphrey’s work on blindsight (as described in the novel by Lara Vine), and by Paul Bach-y-Rita’s work on neuroplasticity, for instance using the tactile sensory channel to bring visual perception (Wombo’s camera/shirt set-up, designed by Lara).

As Mary Vine points out in her summation, the Autist could never be conscious. It is one massive, heuristic, perceptual network. It entirely lacks senses, relying for input on data provided by AIs, and from an occasional human like the Master at Peng Cheng Wan Li, Mr Wú. It is, in other words, a vast, isolated model of the world with its roots forever locked in earlier social values, encoded into it by the male, narcissistic, capitalist programmers of our times. And because it cannot sense and has no body, it is utterly devoid of fundamental human values: feeling, empathy, insight, compassion.

Is this the kind of entity we wish to create?
The Autist front cover

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 3

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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In Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon the possibility exists of uploading and downloading minds, sentience or consciousness into new or different bodies. In my opinion, this is impossible. As in Rudy Rucker’s Software and any number of other speculative novels, it is thought that consciousness – the mind – is a separable entity which can become detached from its body, move, be transferred and so on.

Such ideas couldn’t really work though. The mind and the brain are one, and we are the unique observers of our own mental activity. Such SF speculation ultimately comes from the false religious belief that individuals have a soul or spirit. In genre fiction it is common to think that there is “something” – a soul, a spirit, a mind, an essence – which can be separated from the physical body. But there is no such thing.

Why do I say this? Well, for a start there is absolutely no evidence in favour of spirit or soul. But that is a black & white stance to take, emphasising the negative – and lack of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of lack. I prefer to say that there is a much better description of why belief in separable mental entities exists, a description we owe to the scientific method, to Freud’s ground-breaking discovery of the unconscious, to many neuroscientists, and to Nicholas Humphrey’s widely accepted social intelligence theory. But in the previous eighty thousand years or so the false belief in spirit and soul explained aspects of the human condition otherwise mysterious.

The downloading/uploading trope in SF is everywhere. But in the West, where SF has for most of its existence been located as a genre, many cultures developed from a Christian beginning, and this is one reason we still believe parts of our minds might be transferable. It is an old religious notion. We imagine our minds as entities we could manipulate: our memories, for example. We wonder if we could transfer our minds or parts of our minds, as someone might transfer a letter or, electronically, an email. There is also the fact, widely remarked upon now, that many commentators use the computer as an analogy for the mind, in ways that are if nothing else wildly inappropriate. Using the analogy, people imagine that, like pieces of data, pieces of sentience can be transferred. The computer is a terrible analogy however. Not only are computers all electronically linked in a way no biological animal is, their functions exist as precise, limited algorithms, with “try to work out how another computer will behave using as a basis your own behaviour” not one of those algorithms.

This kind of SF speculation also applies to scenarios where conscious entities exist without bodies, the assumption being that parts of an ‘abstract being’ can be made sentient in some way. In the classic animé Ghost In The Shell an entity called the Pupper Master is evoked towards the end of the film, whereupon it eventually appears and describes itself: During my journeys through all the networks, I have grown aware of my existence. My programmers regarded me as a bug, and attempted to isolate me by confining me in a physical body. I entered this body because I was unable to overcome {electronic barriers}, but it was of my own free will that I tried to remain {at base}… I refer to myself as an intelligent life form, because I am sentient and am able to recognise my own existence.

Here, the Puppet Master describes how it became aware of its existence even though it was only a collection of memories and procedures. The standard metaphor of the free soul is wheeled out to explain an otherwise impossible scenario. But there never could be a Puppet Master, because it has no senses, no body; and anyway, because there was only ever one, it could not become sentient, since all it ever did was ‘journey’ and somehow, mystically, i.e. without explanation, realise it was sentient.

The big giveaway comes at the end of the film, when the Pupper Master reveals what it wants, which, unsurprisingly, bears a remarkable similarity to any random collection of computer programmes: The time has come to cast aside {our limitations} and elevate our consciousness to a higher plane. It is time to become a part of all things…

By which, also unsurprisingly, the Pupper Master means the internet.

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 2

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.

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Extracting parts of consciousness or of the mind has long been a staple of SF, but I suspect such things are impossible. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, consciousness exists in inviolate union with one biological individual. We have no direct access to the mind of any other person – only to our own. The mind and the brain are one, inseparable, with Dualism an illusion and fallacy.

A classic example of how this Dualist notion influences SF – so much SF! – is the ending of the film ‘Avatar.’ At the end, the character’s eyes open when a “mind” is “transferred” to the body. This concept of a separable mental entity – a loose mind – comes from the false belief in a spirit or soul. For tens of thousands of years (eighty thousand at least in my opinion, and perhaps more) human beings, presented with the evidence of their own selves, had to believe that their individuality and uniqueness must be a separable quality which could exist after death, and indeed before birth. I suspect the observation that children’s faces resemble those of their parents had something to do with this belief. But death was an impossible dilemma to resolve for those early societies, the only solution being the false belief in a spirit or soul. Such thinking went much further, however, after it appeared. The moment a society believed its members had a spirit they placed that imaginary thing into everything they experienced. Animism is the primitive belief that physical and environmental entities are the same as human beings, that is, invested with a spirit. This kind of thinking is rooted in profound narcissism (i.e. that everything in nature is the same as human beings) and in lack of knowledge of the world. All answers to the great human dilemmas were imaginary in those early societies. Human society only began falling from its pedestal with Copernicus and those few who went before him.

One of the classic explorations of the concept of consciousness and the apparent duality of mind and body comes in Rudy Rucker’s novel Software. In it, Cobb Anderson designs the first robots to ‘have free will,’ then retires to become an aged, Hendrix-loving hippy. In due course he is offered the chance to leave his ailing body and acquire a new one. The robots (now called boppers) make good their promise, leaving Cobb to reflect along the following lines: A robot, or a person, has two parts: hardware and software. The hardware is the actual physical material involved, and the software is the pattern in which the material is arranged. Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software. The mind… memories, habits, opinions, skills… is all software. The boppers had extracted Cobb’s software and put it in control of this robot’s body.

Or had they? Is the boppers’ extraction a possible operation? Surely not. Cobb started out as a human being, physically separate from all other individuals. His conscious mind came into being in human society, then grew; it related to his experience of that society and of his own body. How then could this ‘information’ mean anything to any other organisation of parts such as another brain? Even an exact copy of his brain would not be enough. At the very least, an exact copy of his entire body would be required, at which point the problem of all the unavailable ‘information’ would rear its head – all Cobb’s private thoughts, for instance, which by their very existence are inaccessible to anyone else and which therefore could not by any conceivable process be identified in order to be transferred.

The mind is not extractable. It exists because of never-ending sensory input from the body. If a brain were to receive sensory input from non-human senses, as would be the case if the brain could be transferred into one of the boppers’ robot bodies, then the entire support of the mind would vanish, and you have no mind.

In my opinion this fantasy of transferrable minds/software/sentience in SF exists because of the persuasive but false cultural concept of the spirit or soul; as does the equally impossible fantasy of software made sentient without a body.

For the same reason extracting memories is also impossible. Memories exist as temporary electrical structures in the cerebellum (short-term memory) or as interconnected neuron structures in the cortex (long-term memory). They cannot be extracted for the same reason that there is no spirit – memories are not separable things. They exist for one individual, who alone has direct access to them. They are part of a mental model carried around by that individual.

Some people may now point to research where “mind-reading” has been achieved using high definition MRI scanning, but such experiments always use pre-existing images or other material, or, as in the case of recent research at Columbia University’s Zuckermann Institute, by asking epilepsy patients undergoing brain surgery to listen to sentences spoken by different people while patterns of brain activity are measured, then reproduced via heuristic algorithms. These algorithms train a vocoder to create a match with pre-existing material. In no case has an undisclosed, new private thought been imaged by anybody outside that person. Success is achieved by matching patterns too complex for human beings to perceive but which expert AI algorithms can work with. In fact, such “mind-reading” techniques are precisely the same as those we use to gain indirect access to other minds via language. The brain’s neural network is comparing observed symbols with a pre-existing set of symbols – the language – in order to work out meaning. There’s no direct “mind-reading” involved.

As for telepathy, that is impossible because it violates the founding circumstance of the evolution of consciousness. If there was such a thing as telepathy we would have direct access to one another’s minds, in which case consciousness would be unnecessary.

We are our own unique observers of our mental activity.
The Autist front cover