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Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

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.

The Autist – publication day!

We are live as of today!

Here’s the page for the novel at Infinity Plus, with more links.

The Autist full cover

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

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 1

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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Is human consciousness a consequence of processing power or other technical/biological power factors?

In his classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson presents the reader with a plot that involves two AIs merging to create a conscious whole – a so-called superconsciousness: “… the sum total of the works, the whole show…” as it is put at the novel’s end. Almost universally SF has assumed that consciousness is a consequence of brain power, computing power, or some other variety of power, and most likely the fact that men have written the overwhelming majority of such SF accounts for some of this assumption. But that isn’t the whole reason. SF has dealt poorly with themes of AI and consciousness because of the difficulty of the topic, the weight of Descartes’ influence, and the spread of religion.

Since the beginning of the last century psychologists have used the most advanced technology they knew of as a metaphor for the conscious mind. In the 1920s for instance it was common for them to picture the mind as a telephone exchange. Our use of the computer metaphor – e.g. the notion that the brain is composed of modules all linking together – is just the latest in a long series of inappropriate metaphors.

Consciousness is not a consequence of any kind of power. Consciousness is a consequence of the evolution of physically separate primates living in highly complex social groups. Consciousness is an emergent property of such groups. It could not exist in any one brain nor could it ever exist as an isolated entity, such as the merged Wintermute/Neuromancer pair. Consciousness is the evolutionary response to the difficulty individuals have in grasping and understanding the behaviour of others who exhibit highly complex social behaviour. It employs a method of empathy, by allowing the conscious individual to use themselves as an exemplar. In other words, if you see somebody crying, you know they are likely to be sad because you have cried before when you were sad. This is the social intelligence theory of consciousness, first put forward by the brilliant Nicholas Humphrey.

Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer could be conscious individuals. They were connected electronically – not separate – and they existed in isolation, not in social groups. Now, no human being has direct access to the private mental model of another person. We do have indirect access however, for example via language, and that led to consciousness during the period of human evolution. Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer had, or needed, such indirect access. They may have been powerful intelligences in the way some AIs are today, but they were not and never could be conscious like us. (I deal with this theme in The Autist.)

Therefore, no amount of computer upgrades, changes from electronic to quantum computing, nor any other sort of power or intelligence changes in entities which exist outside a social group of equivalents could lead to artificial consciousness. Those two preconditions must be met: existence in a social group in which evolutionary change occurs, and indirect access to the private mental models – the minds – of others.

These ideas are the thematic material of my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox. In them, Manfred Klee takes the Nicholas Humphrey route, electronically separating the nine BIs in his opening scene, when he realises that their connection is limiting them since they have no need to develop what these days we call a theory of mind. Once disconnected, they do have that need. Leonora Klee takes the AI route, attempting through computing power alone to develop a sentient machine. But she is doomed to fail. She creates an unstable entity with certain autistic characteristics.

In fact I found it quite difficult to judge the evolutionary development of the BIs, as I didn’t want to anthropomorphise them, a point made by certain characters during the novel. This leads me to another problem in SF, which is for authors to assume the equivalence of human and artificial consciousness. In earlier days I might have emphasised similarities and equivalences, but these days I do take a fuzzier line. Although we human beings faced during our evolutionary history a number of situations which led to the human condition – for instance the need for emotion to convey, to the self and to others, unmissable knowledge of high value experiences – those situations would not necessarily be faced by artificial beings. I think the chances are high that similar things would emerge – emotion and its equivalent, a sense of time and its equivalent, creativity and its equivalent – but I’m not sure they would definitely appear. It would depend on their artificial evolutionary histories.

I don’t know of any SF novels which takes the social intelligence/Nicholas Humphrey route. It would be good to see more realistic speculation in this area, as AIs are already a hot topic, and can only get hotter as their development proceeds.

The Autist front cover

Eve Spoke by Philip Lieberman

In Eve Spoke, the noted linguist and cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman charts the evolution of human beings with respect to our ability to speak.

Much of this book tells the story of the evolution of speech, not least with regard to our unusual biology, but underlying it all is the standpoint of a man who recognises the fundamental importance of society and social learning in our evolution. The science here is impeccable, the story fascinating, the writing excellent.

Lieberman is particularly good when it comes to revealing the sleights of hand and other tricks employed by such people as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker, both of whom take genetics as their starting point. Although Chomsky has contributed a huge amount to linguistics, his genetically reductionist star is fading, and hopefully Pinker’s will fade with it.

The book was published in 1998, and as a consequence is behind the times when it comes to the Neanderthals. Lieberman goes for the ‘genetically isolated’ theory when it comes to matters of evolutionary competition, whereas today we know that some interbreeding did take place between homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. This is a minor matter however which doesn’t alter Lieberman’s main thesis in the slightest.

A terrific book!

eve sp

The Autist full cover reveal

This is the full cover for my upcoming novel The Autist. Main android image by Steve Jones.

The Autist full cover

The Autist cover reveal

This image was designed by the highly talented Steve Jones, who also did the cover images for my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox.
The Autist front cover

The Autist back cover

2100…

Data detective Mary Vine is visiting relatives when she uncovers a Chinese programme of AI development active within her own family.

Ulu Okere has only one goal: to help her profoundly disabled brother, whose unique feats of memory inspire her yet perturb the community they live in.

And in a transmuted Thailand, Somchai Chokdee is fleeing his Buddhist temple as an AI-inspired political revolution makes living there too dangerous.

In 2100 life is dominated by vast, unknowable AIs, that run most of the world and transform every society they touch. When suspicions of a Chinese conspiracy seem substantiated, Mary, Ulu and Somchai decide they must oppose it. Yet in doing so they find themselves facing something the world has never seen before…

ip

Infinity Plus Books

The Autist publication date

I’m delighted to say that the official publication date for The Autist is 7th March. As usual, it will be published by the excellent Infinity Plus Books.

More details to follow…

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Infinity Plus Books

Soul Dust by Nicholas Humphrey

Soul Dust is Nicholas Humphrey’s fourth and perhaps final major popular work about consciousness. Subtitled the magic of consciousness, it takes the reader through some of his earlier concepts, especially those in Seeing Red, before providing a conclusion to decades of groundbreaking work.

This book emphasises the role of natural selection in the evolution of consciousness, first mentioned in the trailblazing The Inner Eye. Natural selection, Humphrey reasons, must have had something to work upon in order to select so strongly for  consciousness. That something, he suggests, is the joy of living – the fact that we are important, both to ourselves and to others, and that we delight in the experience of living, which makes survival in social groups all the more likely. It’s a brilliant notion, which he examines from the perspective of an Andromedan ‘psychological zombie,’ but also through wondering whether or not other species are conscious – Humphrey did research with monkeys and apes for many years, and even worked for a few months alongside Dian Fossey.

Once the main thesis is put forward and argued, there comes a third section, more philosophically speculative than the rest of the book, and indeed of his earlier work, in which he ponders the role of death in the evolution of consciousness. We, after all, are the only species who can fear death.

Here I have to admit I part company with Humphrey. In this book Humphrey deliberately uses the word soul – he posits a ‘soul niche,’ which emerges in parallel with the evolution of consciousness, and of course the word in plain for all to see in the book’s title. But Humphrey, an avowed atheist who has written extensively on atheism, is aware that the word soul has baggage. “Too much baggage?” he asks, coming to the answer no. My answer however is yes. Humphrey wisely points out that religion is parasitic upon spirituality, which, like me, he sees as a far earlier concept (my guess would be 80,000 – 100,00 years old: Humphrey wonders if spirituality arrived at the time of the Cultural Revolution 40,000 years ago, or is perhaps 200,000 years old, when homo sapiens first appeared in Africa). Spirituality he sees as a concept – the immortal spirit or soul – emerging from the experience of consciousness itself. It is, he suggests, an aspect of our deepest psychology. I see the concept as based in the experience of consciousness but having its roots in culture, not psychology. It is, I think, a human answer within the greater framework of meaning.

I also think that Humphrey, like other authors (Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking spring to mind), is unwise in using the vocabulary of religion to describe purely human concepts. The notion of spirit or soul, which Humphrey sees as an inevitable result of consciousness, he describes as something which allows human beings to survive better as individuals. I see the concept as one devised in cultural settings to explain a human experience. I agree with Humphrey that the concept of spirit was inevitable, but I think its roots lie in the prehistoric imagination, not in some deeper psychology which we can never escape. As a consequence, I think talk of spirits and souls in a book of this significance is flawed, if not imprudent.

Of course, that rather begs the question, “what would you use instead?” It’s not an easy one to answer, but I think when referring to human individuality, character or identity in discussions such as these we would be better off using a neutral word like self or being. Many years ago, when I was working for Waterstones, members of staff were asked to put questions to Philip Pullman (another noted atheist) for publication alongside his answers in the company magazine. My question was something along the lines of, “Do you think your use of religious terminology in His Dark Materials has somehow diminished your atheist stance?” Pullman acknowledged this to be a very interesting and pertinent question, but sided with Humphrey, suggesting that the amount of conceptual baggage was acceptable. So, I disagree with him too on this matter!

Soul Dust ends with a meditation on coping with death. As Humphrey observes, there are three main ways of coping: avoiding the concept entirely by living hedonistically for the moment; allowing yourself to merge with the greater human culture as you age; and positing an immortal soul, i.e. denying the obvious. This latter section of the book feels slightly out of place when set against the rest of the work, but only a little. And while I don’t agree with Humphrey here, his thoughts are, as ever, superbly argued and very well written.

This is another exceptional work, as thought provoking as all his previous books.

soul D