stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: The Human Condition: Essays

Blindsight, Hypnotism & Social Media

For some time I’ve been convinced that, for all social media’s benefits, which I have enjoyed and made use of, they are on balance outweighed by the disadvantages and even harmful effects on human beings. In this essay I’m going to compare two brain/mind conditions with what is known about the psychological effects of social media.

Blindsight is an obscure but fascinating mental phenomenon which offers us a unique and deeply significant view into consciousness itself. It was first dealt with in depth by the American neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose most notable work was in the field of neuroplasticity – he was an early researcher into it – introducing in perhaps his most famous work the idea of sensory substitution as a tool for treating patients suffering from neurological disorders.

Blindsight is a very strange thing. Some patients suffering from brain damage or brain disorders believe they are blind when in fact there is no damage to their optical systems at all. When the gifted psychologist and philosopher Nicholas Humphrey approached this phenomenon, he realised there was a deeper level to understanding it. A human being with blindsight, he noticed, believed they were blind despite being able to navigate a room filled with objects, a task for which they felt profound ambivalence. A monkey with blindsight on the other hand simply navigated the room filled with objects. So human beings with blindsight have to invent explanations to give meaning to this unsettling experience, such as possessing ESP powers. Animals do not need to do such a thing – no ambivalence shown.

This experimental observation caused Humphrey to hypothesize that the sensory pathway and the perceptual pathway in conscious human beings are separate entities. In his ground-breaking book A History Of The Mind he explained that because we experience sensation and perception simultaneously (or, at least, almost simultaneously – there is an element of temporal juggling to consciousness) we don’t realise the two are separate. We believe we are navigating the real world when in fact we are relying on our mental model of it. It is only through blindsight that the two systems are revealed to be separate. In his subsequent book Seeing Red Humphrey developed his idea, showing how it might have evolved, and giving a full philosophical and psychological basis for the theory, including sensory modality, which complemented Bach-y-Rita’s work nicely.

When recently I was reading Robin Waterfield’s excellent book Hidden Depths about hypnotism I was struck by an extraordinary similarity. Some hypnotised subjects, when hypnotised into believing they cannot see, still navigate rooms with chairs placed randomly as though they can see. These were called chair/no chair (real/simulant) experiments, the results of which are identical to blindsight experiments.

Could this be coincidence? Possibly. But let’s think about what hypnotism is. Hypnotism has three distinctive properties: focused attention, impaired or reduced peripheral awareness, and vastly increased suggestibility. The first two conditions in particular relate to circumstances in which the subject is making significantly less use of sensory pathways, allowing the perceptual pathway to dominate. In such circumstances, when the real world is not being checked hundreds of times a second as with normal consciousness, the subject is susceptible to being made to believe suggestions imparted to them by the hypnotist. In other words, although the dynamic of the situation is different to blindsight – diminished use of sensory pathways instead of none – there is an emphasis in their subjective experience of perception; and perception, based in a mental model, is essentially a meaning framework, for most if not all people a belief or set of beliefs. But beliefs can be suggested, even “crazy” beliefs, which is why stage hypnotism is often so strange a thing. The subject’s sense of disbelief is suspended.

This phenomenon however is familiar to us from advertising and politics. When you see an advert for, let’s say, a beer, and you feel thirsty, what’s happening is that the advert’s sensory design, lifestyle assumptions and narrative are subtly tapping into what are termed emotional buying triggers, hypnotising you and all other viewers with the explicit desire of making you accept and act upon suggestions. In any other field – education, for instance – such techniques would be banned as deeply inhumane, yet because we live in a corporate, capitalist, individualistic and misogynist (80% of adverts are targeted at women) society it is permitted. Repetition and context complete the technique. And the same happens in politics. Those politicians with charisma are the ones who draw you into their world, taking you to a political worldview of their own or their party’s, but which actually exists inside your mental model. Their desire is to suggest to you that if you vote for them you will gain a suite of life advantages, and even though you return to normality afterwards, even knowing that the speech or party advert was disingenuous, that sensation of belief remains. Repetition completes the deal. Repetition and suggestion make you one of them.

What advertisers and politicians are doing is tapping into that part of the human subconscious which deals with emotional response. This is done deliberately, regardless of the fact that it is psychological manipulation.

So far, then, we’ve decided that consciousness is a user-generated experience based on the simultaneous operation of the sensory and perceptual pathways, which makes us believe we’re interacting with the real world when in fact we’re utilising our mental model. In various kinds of hypnotism the sensory pathway is diminished, so that consciousness’ normal mode of operation, in which it compares reality with its mental model hundreds of times a second, focusing on what has changed, is altered. This alteration allows the perceptual pathway – the subject’s belief system – to dominate, with the proviso that it is subject to suggestion because of the lack of feedback or change emanating from the real world. It’s a bit like taking a person from solid ground to the middle of the ocean – foundations lost, no way of orienting yourself.

The title of my essay adds social media to this scenario. There are two aspects of online life that I want to focus on: the sense that the digital world is an environment, and the structural organisation of social media in particular.

We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in a wide variety of environments, and it was change in those environments, as with all living things, which made evolution by natural selection change us from primates into homo sapiens. Intelligence is the evolutionary response to environmental change which is too swift for evolution in body design to cope with.

We start off in life assuming that everything we deal with in the world is an environment, since it is all physical, as solid as rock, as buoyant as water and as ethereal as air, with laws governed by physics; and so it has been for hundreds of thousands of years. The real world is consistent, since it operates by the laws of physics, chemistry, biology etc; and it is independent of our minds. However, research has shown that we approach the online world in exactly the same way. Despite the fact that the digital world is abstract and entirely manufactured, we work with it as though it is a real place. As a consequence, we bring to the digital world all our usual assumptions.

This is incredibly dangerous. It is one of the main reasons people have been so easy to exploit by the small number of American companies, dominated by male, white, middle class individuals, who currently control the vast majority of the internet. We are being exploited. Well, most people know that, and mostly they don’t care. Or they don’t know and they don’t care.

The dangers are obvious. The online world is the advertising world on steroids, made hyper-real by glittering visual illusions and a huge array of psychological tricks. But that’s only one part of the peril. Digital life is addictive like no other form of living because it taps so comprehensively into our subconsciouses.

But it was designed to be so. It is in fact a particularly vivid form of hypnotism, with the sensory pathways we rely on perverted from real world and realistic to digital and illusory. Online we stop checking the real world, relying on the illusory world presented to us. Should this experience of the digital world – as yet only conveyed by screens and earbuds – be conveyed by augmented reality through glasses and implants then the task of reaching out to human minds via hypnotism will be complete. At that point, any reality can be substituted into the perceptual pathway, and the subject will believe it. People won’t have to carry the inconvenient knowledge that separate screen and earbuds are part of their environment. They’ll feel inside the environment, no separation, and they’ll be powerless to disbelieve whatever is placed in front of them.

I used some of these ideas in my novel Muezzinland, where a culturally active cyberspace – unlike the passive (albeit structured) digital substrate we have at the moment – works to deceive individuals’ perceptions, so that they believe they are following folk tales, legends and so on, behaviour which then affects the real world, and so on back into the virtual, in a multitude of snowball effects. Yet if the digital world is controlled by a tiny number of corporations, what then? Everyone will be a slave, and they won’t even know that. They’ll believe they are free.

There have been many prophets of doom over historical times. Many, like Cassandra, were mocked, fobbed off or ignored. Myself, I think the arrival of the digital world, online life, and social media in particular are more dangerous than any tool human beings have so far invented, for the reasons given above. Most likely I’ll be mocked, fobbed off or ignored for saying such a thing though. After all, the human race hasn’t yet bombed itself out of existence, has it? It hasn’t even managed to damage the planet’s biosphere enough to wipe itself out of existence.

No. Not yet.

Robin Waterfield

In Wales

Had a successful day yesterday recording more incidental shots for the Condition: Human films, this time in Wales (my favourite country).

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Avebury & West Kennet

I spent a terrific day filming at Avebury Stone Circle and West Kennet Long Barrow on Thursday. These were “incidental” shots – I wasn’t speaking to camera on this occasion, though if I had wanted to it would have been too windy. Some lovely images and shots.

The project continues!

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The Sensation Of Losing My Words

I’ve now done a couple of filming sessions for Condition: Human and the experience has been… interesting! Yesterday I spent an afternoon with my partner Nicky (director and camcorder operator) at a dell just outside Betws y Coed, and the first problem we encountered was the noise. The river was in full flow – tons of water coming off those Welsh mountains – and its roaring deafened us close-up. However, by filming a little away from the river and using the directional microphone we were able to get an acceptable balance between the background roar and my voice.

But the main problem (which I encountered when making my first recordings in Mortimer Forest) was the script. I’d written full scripts for the six short films earlier in the year, thinking that was the best option, but actually I’m not the sort of speaker who can remember his lines then deliver them. As I discovered when I did my presentation on consciousness at the day job last year, my natural mode is having a basic outline of the topics then speaking in extemporised fashion. Yesterday, as we nervously eyed the sky for rainclouds, I found myself often unable to remember even a few sentences. It’s a very strange sensation, going mind-blank. Even simple sentences were tricky! In some circumstances, after a few takes, I couldn’t deliver them at all.

So my plan is to amend the scripts so I have basic ideas – words, phrases – around which I’ll improvise. The other option I have is more voice-overs. Recently I analysed a documentary by Alastair Sooke (a presenter Nicky and I both like) to find that the ratio of to-camera delivery to voice-overs is about 55/45. My scripts were written thinking the proportion of to-camera work should be much higher.

Still, we had fun yesterday: enormous fun! This is a work I now know I can do, although whether I’m any good is another question entirely.

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Condition: Human

For thirty five years I’ve been fascinated by human consciousness, its evolution by natural selection, and the human condition. Some decades ago I made a couple of attempts at writing a work encapsulating some of the ideas I’d read – those of Erich Fromm, Dorothy Rowe and Nicholas Humphrey in particular – and of my own, but the books didn’t work out. I’ve had a couple of tries since then, and again they didn’t work out. So a few years ago I had the idea to make a film, thinking that perhaps image and sound would be a better medium than words.

Starting this summer I hope to be making six short films encapsulating all the ideas which interest me: Condition: Human. This will be a personal view. I wrote the scripts earlier in the year, and have since then been working on a shooting schedule, locations, voice-overs – which are surprisingly difficult to do – and the music. My hope is that this and next month I’ll be able to finish the outdoor filming, leaving the indoor shoots, which can be done in any weather.

I’m not sure what kind of presenter I’ll be. Maybe it won’t work out. But I did have a test run last year, when I gave a half hour extemporised lecture about the basics of human consciousness and its evolution. The previous year, at Asylum in Lincoln, I did something similar. So I think the chances are fair that I can be a half decent presenter.

More details to follow!

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Books by Erich Fromm

Answering Dennett’s Question For Him

The philosopher and Darwinist Daniel Dennett is puzzled by the continued existence of religious belief. How, he wonders, does it have survival value? The fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins is similarly perplexed by the persistence of religion, 500 years after the beginning of the scientific revolution. I, on the other hand – an ironclad atheist just like D² – am not at all surprised by the persistence of religious belief.

First of all, a few notes on my own stance. I’ve always been an atheist. My novels often have the theme of exposing religion and spirituality for what they are (eg the ‘Factory Girl’ trilogy). I utterly reject any notion of deities, soul or spirit, and the afterlife. I’m also a Darwinist in that I entirely accept Darwin’s wonderful theory of evolution by natural selection. In other words, I’m remarkably like D². Why, then, the difference?

In this blog post I’d like to answer Dennett’s question for him. Why do spirituality (by which I mean belief systems up to 3,000BC or thereabouts) and religion (what came after) continue to exist in societies suffused with and dependent upon the modern evidence based way of thinking? After all, spacefaring nations East and West go to the moon because of science, not prayer. Hospitals work by science, not prayer. Vaccines were discovered by science, not prayer. When you want anything mended you go to a mender, not a priest. In short: prayer obviously doesn’t work in the world. Yet it remains a major focus for the greater proportion of the world’s population.

Spirituality and religion answer four major questions that all human beings must have answered if they are to live coherent, sane lives. Those questions typically revolve around the themes: (i) how did the universe come into existence; (ii) how did I come into existence; (iii) what is the meaning of my life; and (iv) how should I live? No human being can live sane and whole without some basic answer to these four questions. That’s part of being human. In other words, meaning is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. D² have answered the four questions through science. Others answer them through religion. Science, spirituality and religion are all meaning frameworks.

A better reframing therefore of Dennett’s question is: what is the survival value of meaning frameworks? Now we see where D² have gone wrong. Religion is merely an imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks. Atheism is also a human meaning framework. Science is a non-imaginary subset of human meaning frameworks, working through the scientific method, which spirituality and religion explicitly deny.

In other words, from perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago, spirituality was an absolutely inevitable invention for all hunter-gatherers, who could not under any circumstances have survived without it. Human beings profoundly live via metaphor. We tell stories. This is what the Darwinist and the fundamentalist atheist don’t understand. They apply Darwinism to social life. Darwinism in fact applies to bodies created by genetics. Applying Darwinism to social life – asking “What is the survival value of religion?” – is like applying the mechanical processes in clockwork to the notion of eleven o’clock. Eleven o’clock is a human concept emerging from the mechanical processes inside a clock. You don’t ask what eleven o’clock is by observing the precise positions of cogs, levers and hands inside a stopwatch. You enquire as to its meaning in human life.

If human beings are to live happy, just, peaceful lives we have to expose the true nature of spirituality and religion. Pretending it’s all just a bunch of fairy stories, although literally true, strips metaphor from human minds, and without metaphor we are destined for insanity. We need stories to survive, and for the vast majority of human existence we had to invent them, because we didn’t know the truth about the real world. But now we do. Scientists accept that we defer to the real world, not the other way around. It is the real world which teaches us, not some book written 2,000 years ago, or some imaginary collection of principles invented in the depths of the last Ice Age. A new story is therefore required.

Yuval Noah Harari recently pointed out that for the first half of the twentieth century there were essentially three human stories: Capitalism, Socialism and Liberalism. After WW2 there was one human story: Liberalism. But now, we have no human story. That observation should send a chill through the hearts and minds of all who care about the future of the human race.

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The Trickster

The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.

Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.

Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.

But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.

The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.

Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.

Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.

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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.

*

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