How to Build a Zombie Detector

A fair number of topics jostling for attention lately: slime moulds outfitted with skittish cyborg exoskeletons, Jim Munroe’s microbudget megasavvy take on nanotech, even this recent research on free will in fruit flies (which I’m wary of, but am holding off commenting upon until I’ve thoroughly read the original paper). And I’m in bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew mode at the moment, so I don’t have time to put all that stuff on the crawl right now. But there is one thing that struck me like a bolt from the blue (except it was actually a bolt from an e-mail server) late last night, as I was trying to clear away the e-mail backlog:

Zombie detectors.

There’s this guy, allegedly named Nick Alcock, who seems to know way more than he admits to. He first ruined my morning back in March by pointing out that if vampires really needed to eat people because they couldn’t synthesise gamma-Protocadherin-Y on their own, and if they needed that protein because it was so damned critical for CNS development, then women shouldn’t have working brains because the gene that codes for it is located on the Y chromosome. It was a shot across the bow I could not resist; we’re still going at it two months later.

One of the things we’ve veered into lately is the classic philosopher-wank question: if you’ve got a nonconscious zombie that natural selection has nonetheless shaped to blend in — to behave as though it were conscious (we’re talking the classic philosopher zombie agent here, not the fast killer-zombies under discussion a few days ago) — how could you detect it? More fundamentally, why would you bother? After all, if it behaves exactly like the rest of us, then the fact that it’s nonconscious makes no real difference; and if it does behave differently, then consciousness must have some impact on the decision-making process, findings about after-the-fact volition notwithstanding. (The cast of Blindsight mumble about this dilemma near the end of the book; it’s basically a variant on the whole “I know I’m conscious but how do I know anyone else is” riff.)

So this Alcock dude points out that if I’m right in my (parroted) claims that consciousness is actually expensive, metabolically, then zombie brains will be firing fewer synapses and burning through less glucose than would a comparable baseline human performing the same mental tasks. And that reminded me of a paper I read a few years back which showed that fast thinkers, hi-IQ types, actually use less of their brains than the unwashed masses; their neural circuitry is more efficient, unnecessary synapses pared away.

Zombie brains run cooler than ours. Even if they mimic our behavior exactly, the computational expense behind that behavior will be lower. You can use an MRI to detect zombies!


Of course, now Nick has turned around and pointed out all the reasons that would never work, because it is his sacred mission in life to never be satisfied. He’s pointing out the huge variation in background processing, the miniscule signal one would have to read against that, the impossibility of finding a zombie and a sentry (trademark!) so metabolically identical that you could actually weed out the confounds. I say, fuck that. There are places where the conscious and subconscious minds interface: I say, look at the anterior cingulate gyrus (for example), and don’t bother with crude glucose-metabolism/gas-mileage measures. There’s gotta be some telltale pattern in there, some trademark spark of lightning that flickers when the pointy-haired boss sends a memo. That‘s what you look for. The signature of the ball and chain.

Of course, it won’t be enough for this Alcock guy. He’s bound to find some flaw in that response. He always does.

Maybe I just won’t tell him.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday May 20 2007at 09:05 am , filed under just putting it out there..., neuro . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

50 Responses to “How to Build a Zombie Detector”

  1. That’s still problematic, I’m afraid. Even granted that you could possibly handle the zombie/sentry problem by studying entire populations of zombies and sentries (if only you could divide the population up properly first), you still have the problem of working out what the hell the signature of the ball and chain *is*.

    I mean, how do you go about it? Normally you’d determine the neural correlate of property X by finding a (large!) bunch of people with X and without X, and determining what the significant difference was in their brains; or by finding a bunch of people who have gained or lost X by virtue of a suitable mutation, and use that mutation as a guide to find the neural correlate of X.

    But how can you do that with consciousness? You can’t tell if a random individual is conscious or not from external observation, andexcept by the statistical zombie-detector process, which again only works if the signal is massive or if you already know who is or isn’t conscious. And we know of no genes for consciousness. In the Blindsight universe you could probably look in the areas where brain activity varies between vamps and humans… but, hell, we don’t even have much idea about the genetic or neural correlates of something with effects on external behaviour as obvious as *autism*. Doing it for consciousness, well, I think we’ll have telematter drives a long time before we have this; vamps have a lot of behavioural differences as well as the lack of consciousness, and all of those will confound your search. (Uploading is even further in the future, of course.)

    (Good grief, typing in these tiny text boxes is horrible. I hope you don’t mind if I keep the detail work to a medium where I can see more than half a paragraph at once!)

    — N., critic-at-large of cool ideas

  2. 1) I like this Alcock fellow already.

    2) Forgive my slowness (being overly conscious has always been my problem) but what’s a “sentry”? Would that be a member of the (presumably) non-zombie masses?

    - razorsmile.

  3. N, copy paste from an external editor.

    P, I was thinking along the lines of a zombie trap; a big cage with a lump of human flesh in it. Would that help with building a detector?

  4. so a tiny sub-population that exists by imitating the actions of the much larger population around them? something makes me think you could use Hamming Codes to single them out. i haven’t figured out a suitable experiment, though.

  5. razorsmile, sentries are known non-zombie members of the population (a sentry against detection failure, if you will)

    Kevin, I think this depends on the sort of philosophical zombie you’re considering. The pure form is an entity without consciousness who is by definition indistinguishable through study of external actions from one with consciousness. It doesn’t necessarily live by imitation: it may use arbitrarily complex decision-making processes (as the scramblers do). It’s just that it doesn’t use consciousness (whatever that is, and assuming that consciousness is `used’ and is not just waste).

    The detection method relies on the fact that we can study things other than external actions: we can study the `hardware’ directly (or as directly as, say, MRI allows). Our only remaining problem is that we don’t understand the `hardware’ well enough to identify the neural correlates of consciousness: and that when we do it may be the case that we’ll discover that the concept of a zombie is incoherent anyway. (Personally, I’m of the latter opinion: consciousness as illusion necessarily present in entities that construct lots of models of the world; but I have no more evidence for this than Peter has for the Blindsight thesis, and I never invented any cool vampires :) )

    Purely imitative zombies are probably easier to detect, if we can figure out what the hell a purely imitative entity would act like. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a completely non-creative person. I’m not sure such a person could even form coherent sentences (although the Chinese Room entity speaking from Rorschach was a nice attempt, the scramblers are probably not this type of zombie: one of them invented a very nifty method of camouflage in seconds or less, and another one invented a cryptic comm method. So they’re definitely not purely imitative.)

    Branko, I’m afraid that if zombies like lumps of human flesh, they’re not indistinguishable from the conscious entities around them. So they’re not zombies, unless the entities around them are members of a cannibal tribe ;)

    — N., wants to see Jukka versus Spike (not boxing: debate)

  6. Nick objects:

    But how can you do that with consciousness? You can’t tell if a random individual is conscious or not from external observation, andexcept by the statistical zombie-detector process, which again only works if the signal is massive or if you already know who is or isn’t conscious. And we know of no genes for consciousness. In the Blindsight universe you could probably look in the areas where brain activity varies between vamps and humans… but, hell, we don’t even have much idea about the genetic or neural correlates of something with effects on external behaviour as obvious as *autism*.

    Hah. I laugh at your Luddite technology-based objections. We’ve already got transcranial magnetic stimulation, and while Sony hasn’t figured out how to actually plant sensory input (and brand preferences, and political beliefs) into the brain using compressed ultrasound, they do keep renewing the patent. We have case studies of people who lose their sense of personal identity (some victims of Cotard’s Syndrome regard themselves as rotting corpses, not life forms at all); we’ve nailed the God Module that tells us where we end and the environment begins, and by screwing with that you can steal people’s sense of individual identity and replace it with a sense of being “one with the universe”. Hell, even 19th-century tamping irons were able to shut down morality and ethics while leaving cognitive functions unimpaired. We’ve been poking around in grey matter, shutting things off and switching things back on, for years; we can provoke alien hand syndrome, we can force people to dance like marionettes while all the time insistinng that they do so of their own free will. Seems to me, it’s not that great a leap from to a technology that allows us to systematically shut down any specific neural circuitry we want to, just to see what happens. Barring some kind of Back-to-the-Stone-Age collapse, I have no doubt we’ll be able to do that routinely within seventy years. Hell, to some extent we’re doing it now.

    So you wouldn’t need stats or groundtruthing zombie populations at all. You’d just need to a few off-the-shelf brains, a next-gen TMS rig, and time enough to poke around until your tweaking shuts off the pointy-haired boss.

    Maybe the telltale would be close enough to something like Cotard’s to tell on sight– or maybe you’d have to do some interviews with under-the-influence subjects, take note of the times when they continue to answer lucidly even though all the I/O from the reticular formation has gone dark. But bottom line, if consciousness has neural correlates (and unless there are any duallists in the audience, we can take that as axiomatic), then given technology that allows us to selectively target specific neural circuits, we can find it through brute force poking.

  7. raz wondered:

    2)what’s a “sentry”? Would that be a member of the (presumably) non-zombie masses?

    Yeah. I thought “sentry” might make a nice slangy contraction of “sentient being”.

    Too hokey?

  8. Isn’t the definitive hallmark of all zombies they go round and round in endless circles, prattling on endlessly about “Brains”?

  9. Peter, I got the impression that Siri might have been a zombie – or at least, wasn’t sure himself if he was a zombie, or was simply so good of a zombie that he could mimic a “himself” to ask whether or not that “himself” was a zombie. To quote you from a SciFi.com interview:

    Despite this, Siri fits in, and better than most people, Watts said. “Of necessity he has become a brilliant observer, an excellent mimic,” he said. “But it’s all correlational. He knows that when confronted with this set of variables, you do that in response, but he’s not quite sure why.

    Or is Siri an almost-zombie, somewhere halfway between, not really understanding either but translating for both? That’d fit too, given his profession.

    If so, I have an idea….

  10. A totally secondary thought triggered by what you were saying, Peter…

    we’ve nailed the God Module that tells us where we end and the environment begins, and by screwing with that you can steal people’s sense of individual identity and replace it with a sense of being “one with the universe”.

    Does it make me totally unethical to suggest that we combine transcranial magnetic stimulation with the knowledge of the god module to um, do a de facto rewire of people who lack empathy? Sort of like the way psych pharmaceuticals are supposed to be used – you take them while you work on whatever’s been bothering you (and incidentally get your brain’s wiring retrained by new habits and new chemicals). Instead of being indirect, why not low-level stimulation of the god module over time and give some direct experiences of transcendence?

  11. Maybe I’m missing the point here but either the so-called zombies are distinguishable using some kind of Turing test, or they aren’t and then what is the point if they don’t really feel, but nobody notices, maybe not even they themselves. They are just differently conscious. Then again maybe we have a zombie detector built in and we think of the zombies as just a little bit odd, but within the range of human understanding. Maybe we’re all zombies.
    “John Milton: Free will, it is a bitch.”

  12. You know, I read this and tink I comprehend even a quarter of what you’re writing.

    And then I look at my cat and he says to me, “Now you know how I feel, bitch,” and he goes back to licking his crotch.

    CRT

  13. I would put forth that the reduced energy consumption of superior intellects is not so obviously relevant to this problem. It sounds somewhat analogous to the process of neural pruning that people undergo when they become adults: improved competence through efficiency. So maybe these smarter people are to most people as adults are to children: brain matter being used more efficiently in a way that causes less power to be used and yields results that are either the same or better.

    Perhaps most people’s brains are just wired in the biological neural-net equivalent of INTERCAL.

  14. Well, compared to the theoretical limit of computing power that neurons in a human-skull-sized container could possibly have, I’m sure all humans are wired in the equivalent of INTERCAL. But I meant, some people are more so than others.

  15. @legba: Hence “philosophical wank-question”.

    Not to say it’s unimportant. How many of us need to understand general relativity to work with gravity? Heck, how many of us need to understand Newton to work with gravity? But I don’t think either of those — which have no real impact on our daily lives — are unimportant either.

  16. Without an understanding of special relativity, our GPS would not be possible. The time dilation due to the motion of the GPS satellites is enough of a confounding factor that the synchronizing clocks would be useless after only a few days if the engineers were using classical mechanics.

    “We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it.”
    ~Marie Curie

  17. Too hokey?

    Not at all, I likeses it.

    — N., wants to see Jukka versus Spike (not boxing: debate)

    Jukka takes it either way, unless Spike manages to pull an attrition victory.

    legba: depends on if their capabilities are superior. If zombies are quantifiably superior in some way – perhaps, they have freaky cognitive hacks that allow them to — wait, Blindsight already fucking did this. Why am I still talking?

  18. @ar: Excellent point with GPS: pure science can lead to otherwise unexpected and unpredicted practical advances.

    But let’s be clear – GPS postdates Einstein (himself, let alone his papers on relativity) by decades. The relatively recent emphasis on only doing applied science — science that needs to justify itself by having a “point” — would have probably nixed funding research into relativity as a waste of time. Pure science will pay off eventually, but it’s misleading to claim that it results in direct financial gain for the scientist. In economic terms, pure science produces huge positive externalities.

  19. I think this all comes down to where you draw the line as to what constitutes behaviour. We’re talking about zombies as behaviourally identical to sentries, but with a different model of engine under the hood. But as soon as you pop the hood and start observing the insides, what you observe becomes behaviour, right? And then your definition of ‘zombie’ prevents you from distinguishing them again.

    I think I’d prefer to be a zombie than a conscious human anyway. At least zombies are comprehensible to themselves.

  20. The answer to your question is only a passport and an airplane ticket away.

    If you are talking about real life zombies, then welcome to Jamaica, or Haiti or the Dominican Republic (Hispaniola for all those that don’t know), or some of the Central African States.

    If you are talking the fictionalized flesh eating creations of some mentally retarded 13 year old, then end of discussion.

    Having been to Santo Domingo many times as a kid and going into the fields, I watched plenty of these zombies at work. They are just like you and me. Hold conversations, and eat same as you. The difference being that they do not seem to possess free will. I’m only recalling from childhood here, but I never saw one eat human flesh or do anything other than preset routine events. Really, go see them, most people negate the fact, but you can wander about the fields and voila! There be Zombies…

  21. Anyone want to bet that someone, somewhere will soon be selling ZombieDetect devices for about $1000 each.

  22. Stever said,

    Peter, I got the impression that Siri might have been a zombie – or at least, wasn’t sure himself if he was a zombie, or was simply so good of a zombie that he could mimic a “himself” to ask whether or not that “himself” was a zombie … Or is Siri an almost-zombie, somewhere halfway between, not really understanding either but translating for both? That’d fit too, given his profession.

    I was actually trying to make that explicit in the last three lines of the story (after priming you throughout the novel with repeated imperatives to “imagine you’re Siri Keeton”). Thing is, if Siri is a zombie he wouldn’t “understand” anything about anything, not as we understand the term. And we never get into his head, so there’s no way to know: all we have to go on is the transcript he leaves behind. Which could be nothing more than a very clever forgery…

    If so, I have an idea….

    Don’t leave us in suspense, man. Spill.

    Steve
    also wonders
    Does it make me totally unethical to suggest that we combine transcranial magnetic stimulation with the knowledge of the god module to um, do a de facto rewire of people who lack empathy? Sort of like the way psych pharmaceuticals are supposed to be used – you take them while you work on whatever’s been bothering you (and incidentally get your brain’s wiring retrained by new habits and new chemicals).

    What is this Earth thing called “ethics”?

    When you get right down to it, I don’t see much difference between using TMS to rewire circuits or simply using effective propaganda to do the same thing. Propaganda is less direct perhaps, but in both cases, external forces have the effect of causing neural circuitry to rewire. Every time you change someone’s mind about something, you’re performing a tiny act of neurosurgery. Do we ban advertising and argument on this basis?

    Instead of being indirect, why not low-level stimulation of the god module over time and give some direct experiences of transcendence?

    I already wrote a story about that — a parallel history in which Rome got a handle on the God Module back in Biblical times. Originally appeared in a book called ReVisions, edited by Julie Czerneda and (no shit) Isaac Szpindel.

  23. ar said:

    Perhaps most people’s brains are just wired in the biological neural-net equivalent of INTERCAL.

    Thanks for forcing me to go and look up INTERCAL when I’ve got ten deadlines hanging over my head, dude. I will not forget it.

  24. Fraxas said…

    I think this all comes down to where you draw the line as to what constitutes behaviour. We’re talking about zombies as behaviourally identical to sentries, but with a different model of engine under the hood. But as soon as you pop the hood and start observing the insides, what you observe becomes behaviour, right? And then your definition of ‘zombie’ prevents you from distinguishing them again.

    Not sure I agree, unless you want to define all mental processes as “behavioural” whether or not they manifest beyond the brain. Which may, I suppose, be reasonable in certain lights — but for present purposes, I would define “behavior” as that which the brain causes the chassis to do: “thought” would be that that occurs within the CPU. (“Conscious thought” would be “thought” which included the PHB in the loop.)

    At least zombies are comprehensible to themselves.

    I disagree. If a zombie can be said to “comprehend” anything, then by definition it’s not a zombie. I’d prefer a word like “process” or “analyze”. Or am I being too anal about this?

  25. razorsmile sez:

    If a zombie can be said to “comprehend” anything, then by definition it’s not a zombie. I’d prefer a word like “process” or “analyze”. Or am I being too anal about this?

    Anal? I’d go even further. Think Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy: “There is no runner. Running is accomplished. That is all.”

    Ergo, zombies don’t even “process” anything. Processing is accomplished. That is all.

    That fact that it happens inside the zombie’s brain is just an interesting causal datum :D

  26. I assume you’ve come across Robert Hare’s studies of psychopathy (e.g. “Without Conscience”) and his tests that are based on empathy and empathic reactions to weed out psychopaths in jobs, prisons and other situations? It seems empathy is the key. But Hare also has used MRI scans to show that the brains of psychopaths function in different ways to “normal” humans.
    And empathy was also the basis for the tests in Blade Runner / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where the androids were discovered through their responses. Was PKD really writing about robots or the other kind of human?

  27. I assume you’ve come across Robert Hare’s studies of psychopathy (e.g. “Without Conscience”) and his tests that are based on empathy and empathic reactions to weed out psychopaths in jobs, prisons and other situations?

    Yeah, I actually read up on Hare when I was researching the rifters books (haven’t read his “Snakes in Suits” book, although I did see a PBS special based upon it). Zombies wouldn’t necessarily behave like psychopaths, though; although both would have to fake empathy to get by, an effective zombie would be faking everything else too, so empathy wouldn’t necessarily constitute a better telltale than, say, a sense of humour.

    And empathy was also the basis for the tests in Blade Runner / Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where the androids were discovered through their responses. Was PKD really writing about robots or the other kind of human?

    I remember reading that PKD was inspired to write Sheep while going through the logs of old WW2 concentration camps. He came to a passage in which the local commandant complained that the faint screaming of dying Jews, carrying over the wall, was upsetting his children at their playtime, and he thought: whatever wrote this was not human. Biologically, maybe, but whatever essence it is that we associate with Humanuty is entirely absent from this creature. And then he started wondering about what that essence might be.

    And the rest is also history.

  28. @Peter – Anonymous beat me to it, really. Anyway, if I’m not just hopelessly confused and out of my depth, and Siri is at least pretty close to zombiedom, then I think we could differentiate zombies behaviorally. The bit Anon said about empathy is really quite key.

    I’m reminded of kids with Reactive Attachment disorder (wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, really). To get a quick handle on what these kids are like, imagine Lenie, but betrayed and hurt when she was really small, when those initial habits of trust and empathy are being formed. Here’s a nice little primer my wife and I put together,

    A major “symptom” is a complete and total lack of empathy. It’s a nice little breeding ground for sociopaths who think the world is thier whole enemy, busy being addicted to being stressed.

    So these kids – one of mine is one, my ex-wife did a number on him when I was in BASIC and deployed overseas – end up pulling what can only be a Chinese Room. If you present them with stimuli that they’ve never correlated before, and you can break damn near any mood or pattern or behavior. It’s totally bizarre – but it can only happen once or twice. I was constantly reminded of this when reading Siri’s narration (and I’m glad to see I wasn’t projecting too much there).

    As I’ve watched others interact with my oldest son, I see them taking the effective equivalent of a Turing test. Sometimes he falls straight into that uncanny valley and sometimes he can pass off enough surface affect to, well, “pass”.

    So, barring human review boards and the like, wouldn’t these kids and sociopaths be perfect for creating the disease model?

    I mean, we’ve got what appears to be functioning zombies (as Anon said, and PKD may have intuited) already living among us… and we do detect it, most of the time.

    Hey… (sorry, thinking as I type) – sociopaths tend to have lower IQs than the population mean. That’d make one want to argue that sociopaths cannot be zombies, but from what’s said above, zombies have to constantly model reality in a massive if-then-else branch. Most of the positions that Peter mentions that are held by sociopaths (CEOs, politicians – and I agree, by the by) are ones that really require cultural capital and “people skills” – but not a whole lot else. So if you spend a whole ton of your processing power on just modeling others, you can get by pretty well (think of everyone who has ever read “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, for example – that’s the core of what you have to master.)

    But for all the rest of the zombies, they’re actually having to do more work – the equivalent of running an emulator for a different OS on your system. It eats up extra resources, right?

    Um. I’ll stop rambling for a bit. :)

  29. @Peter – Right, I really really really liked “Heathen”. I seriously thought about using it in the Sunday School class I was teaching.

    No, I’m not shitting you.

    I was suggesting that what you fictionally used could have really practical effects in psychotherapy. Here, now. I don’t have the time to do a real lit review, and I can’t tell from your comment: Is therapeutical use being examined now, or is it still in the “oooh, neat toy!” stage?

  30. I remember reading that PKD was inspired to write Sheep while going through the logs of old WW2 concentration camps. He came to a passage in which the local commandant complained that the faint screaming of dying Jews, carrying over the wall, was upsetting his children at their playtime, and he thought: whatever wrote this was not human. Biologically, maybe, but whatever essence it is that we associate with Humanuty is entirely absent from this creature. And then he started wondering about what that essence might be.

    That sounds like a No True Scotsman argument. He believed that no human could do such a thing, and then when he encountered a human that did exactly that, he simply said, “No true human could do that.” Well, why not? Because he can’t imagine himself acting that way? Calling such a person inhuman is merely a trick to distance the speaker from something they dislike.

  31. No True Scotsman argument. … Calling such a person inhuman is merely a trick to distance the speaker from something they dislike.

    Similarly modern Christians, when confronted with the behaviour of Christian authorities rangeing from the Inquisition to the abuse of children in modern residential schools, generally tend to dismiss the offenders as “not real Christians”.

    Point taken.

  32. So, barring human review boards and the like, wouldn’t these kids and sociopaths be perfect for creating the disease model?

    Today, yes. In 2082, I would hope that we could have reduced the treatment of such maladies to a trivial synaptic rewire. So we wouldn’t have such case studies at the time of Blindsight — we’d have to induce them systematically. So I would hope. But then, I’m a congenital optimist.

    I mean, we’ve got what appears to be functioning zombies (as Anon said, and PKD may have intuited) already living among us… and we do detect it, most of the time.

    Well, we detect the ones that we detect — but that’s a little like throwing a net with s five-meter mesh size into the ocean and concluding from your catch that there’s nothing smaller down there than whales and basking sharks. For all we know, we’re only detecting the real weaklings in the population.

    Hey… sociopaths tend to have lower IQs than the population mean. … Most of the positions that Peter mentions that are held by sociopaths (CEOs, politicians – and I agree, by the by) are ones that really require cultural capital and “people skills” – but not a whole lot else.

    Again, I wonder if we’re not just catching the bottom of the class, so to speak, and if it’s not a mistake to assume that the ones that get caught are typical of the breed. My understanding is that there are a fair number of sociopaths in medicine as well, and affiliated professions such as pharmatech. This implies some kind of proficiency at research, or at least at the memorisation of a large list of drugs, surgical instruments, and body parts…

  33. Steve said sociopaths tend to have lower IQs than the population mean

    Which made me think (gliby) that “George W is a sociopath whereas (insert relevant figure here) is a psychopath” is a joke that goes past most of my friends when I tell it.

    There is a fine line between sociopathy and psychopathy and it hasn’t been defined entirely to my satisfaction, but I feel that the sociopathic personality has enough empathy to see that they’re pissing people off (at least) and enjoy it at a quite visceral level whereas a psychopath is entirely incapable of empathy and takes pleasure only from observing the results of a successful deceit in simulating it.

    I wonder if anyone here has read Gita Sereny’s biography, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth? Speer was, in many ways the sort of psychopath described by PKD. For those who don’t know, he was Hitler’s architect and later Minister for Armaments. He was certainly a genius, but a man entirely lacking in conventional empathy in the way that an autistic person lacks the ability to form and “intuitive” Theory of Mind and must therefore work through interpreting emotional cues “manually.”

    Speer was, interestingly, the only one of the Nazis tried at Nuremburg (and later) to express any sort of guilt, but it was in the manner of a “project” that he was determined to study and complete rather than something that came naturally. His life in Spandau and after his release is interesting in that respect. Sereny – and other biographers – specifically pinpoint his lack of empathy, but also his awareness of this lack and his conscious attempts to compensate for it.

    Interesting… would this indicate that psychopathy per se is not necessarily a Bad Thing provided that a psychopath is properly educated (ie., before they start taking architectural comissions from the wrong people)?

    As another aside, I’ve heard it said (OK, no authoritative backup here) that there is a disproportionally large number of psychopaths in the acting profession, suggesting that it’s not just a form of “fitness” that suits environments where one has to be particularly nasty – yes, actors are bitchy, but the profession serves a socially positive role (art and storytelling as a social binder and all that) possibly because of the high proportion of psychpaths.

    There’s a neat parable by Borges (“Everything and Nothing”) about an actor acclaimed for his performances because he seemed to thoroughly inhabit them, but wondered who his “real” self might be. Upon his death, he met God and asked who in fact he was, and God’s reply was, “All of them and none of them”, as indeed was the case with the deity too.

    Now that’s a neat little literary puzzle, but as always with Borges, it’s worth considering the wider implications – just what do we mean by “I” or the PHB? Is it purely a sense of awareness that is tied with specific sensory and cognitive experiences and thereby totally, albeit falsely, identified with them? How much of consciousness is role-play? When we play a role we can do it with complete belief or with detached earnestness. My bet, considering all that’s gone on here, is that the answer is that we mostly think of ourselves as peole in a non-detached way and that – and my apologies for bad taste – an Albert Speer type character or an autistic person is more conscious because they think about what he should do rather than being tugged this way and that by programmed or intuitive – that is unconscious – compulsions.

    So there’s another figure to stand next to the PHB as a possible alternative – Speer.

    My overall impression, implied above, is that consciousness is a quality present by degrees rather than being either present or absent. I wonder what degree people would prefer, if they had the choice?

  34. @Brett D: One of my wife’s classes this term is on sociopaths. Apparently they tend to “grow out of it” (if they survive) somewhere around middle age.

    Which led me to thinking: Didn’t George W. Bush start acting really goofy about then? What if an entity that was previously a zombie suddenly found itself “awake”? Would you suddenly find yourself less glib, less able to talk spontaneously? Would spoonerisms spill from your mouth like water as previously streamlined processes suddenly got railroaded by a newly-online pointy-haired boss? Could that (more than the “dry drunk” hypothesis) explain the startling change of GW’s speech patterns, especially in semi-spontaneous settings?

    Of course, you’d have to agree that he was a sociopath beforehand, which may not go over well.

  35. Brett chimed in with:

    There is a fine line between sociopathy and psychopathy and it hasn’t been defined entirely to my satisfaction,

    Hare says the two terms are pretty much synonymous, I think.

    Interesting… would this indicate that psychopathy per se is not necessarily a Bad Thing provided that a psychopath is properly educated (ie., before they start taking architectural comissions from the wrong people)?

    I was visiting family recently, and my brother took indignant exception to my description of corporations as sociopathic by definition. Corporations are not sociopathic, he informed me: they are completely amoral.

    I think a fair number of people make that mistake, equating sociopathy with Fu-Manchu villainy. My understanding is that sociopaths are merely people without conscience or empathy; they can be kind as easily as they can be cruel. Don’t really matter much to them either way. So, yeah: if you put a sociopath into an environment where it serves his own perceived best interests to behave well, he’ll be happy to do so.

    As another aside, I’ve heard it said (OK, no authoritative backup here) that there is a disproportionally large number of psychopaths in the acting profession, suggesting that it’s not just a form of “fitness” that suits environments where one has to be particularly nasty – yes, actors are bitchy, but the profession serves a socially positive role (art and storytelling as a social binder and all that) possibly because of the high proportion of psychpaths.

    Hadn’t heard about actors, but there is a school of thought that maintains that sociopaths (and autistics too, for that matter) are not so much pathological as merely adapted to specific late-breaking niches. I’m playing around with that idea for the sidequel — the thought that new subtypes of human beings might arise spontaneously in response to 21rst century niches that never existed before, simply because brains rewire themselves in novel environments. (The big-thumbed motor strips of kids raised on Playstations might be an example.) Zombies, Asperger-hackers, and so on might just start to proliferate because our current fast-forward environment causes brains to change

    My overall impression, implied above, is that consciousness is a quality present by degrees rather than being either present or absent. I wonder what degree people would prefer, if they had the choice?

    We do, to some extent. We sleep. We wire ourselves on caffeine and ecstacy. We watch Deal or No Deal, which is as close as you can get to a self-performed lobotomy.

    Actually, that last group of people seems pretty happy…

  36. One of my wife’s classes this term is on sociopaths. Apparently they tend to “grow out of it” (if they survive) somewhere around middle age.

    I did not know that. No old sociopaths?

    Which led me to thinking: Didn’t George W. Bush start acting really goofy about then? What if an entity that was previously a zombie suddenly found itself “awake”?

    Oh, God no. He did enough damage when he was sleepwalking.

  37. So, yeah: if you put a sociopath into an environment where it serves his own perceived best interests to behave well, he’ll be happy to do so.

    Actual crime theory is more complicated than that. To eliminate most crime you would have to:

    1. Make it in everyone’s best interests to behave.

    2. Convince those not smart enough to realize it on their own that this is the case.

    3. Cause those who are aware of this fact to posses the self-control necessary to actually act in accordance with that knowledge.

    Steps 2 and 3 are far from trivial.

  38. AR sez: Steps 2 and 3 are far from trivial

    Indeed. I’m reminded of some lines from a film, Broken Arrow (ho hum) in which the hero confronts the villain (John Travolta) with the devastating argument, “You’re mad!”, to which Travolta replies, “Yeah, ain’t it cool?”.

    Where economists always seem to get it wrong is in assuming that people are rational agents acting in our own best interests – and those interests are defined as economic (Matthew Arnold called economics the “dismal science” because it was drearily materialistic – I think that it should be so-called because the science is dismal). Idiosyncratic religious beliefs, aesthetics, delusions, disorder, “honour” and so on all hopelessly complicate such calculations.

    So I agree heartily – they’re far from trivial. Makes me wonder about Skinner after all…

  39. Peter Watts said; not so much pathological as merely adapted to specific late-breaking niches

    I have to say that that is what I found so fascinating about the Rifters trilogy and Blindsight, that chilly posthumanist suggestion that, “OK, so what if it’s ‘pathological’, aren’t we all ‘pathological’ once we get down to systematic description of cognition and behaviour? So maybe then certain ‘pathologies’ are good…’

    Having had a relationship with a woman who seemed to fall somewhere between Boderline Personality Disorder and Asperger’s, I’ve often thought that at least some types of ‘crazy’ people actually see the world more clearly and have a more genuinely ‘authentic’ existence than ‘normal’ folks.

    You know what’s the best thing about sf? No quote marks, no ironic detachment. It’s all honest.

  40. ahhh-ohhh….

    After reading this, I am really disturbed(checking tree model for aprop actions)…..

    It seems to me that I have many characteristics of a Zombie. (actions..base. Kill-rejected)
    (actions..base. Hide-{survival not affected}-rejected)
    (actions..base. Engage-accepted[sub tree- learn.],[sub tree-generate interest],[sub tree-evaluate for threat]

    I must investigate this most interesting set of events. Please continue to post on this subject.

    (actions..internal. [Store for ref.])
    (actions..external. [sub-tree submit],[sub tree {invoke >linux,firefox,button}]

  41. Brett said:

    I’ve often thought that at least some types of ‘crazy’ people actually see the world more clearly and have a more genuinely ‘authentic’ existence than ‘normal’ folks.

    One of the creepiest lines in “Neuropath” arises while the two leads are talking about the villain of the piece, a serial killer who goes around rewiring the brains of his victims to illustrate the fallacy of free will and the insignificance of the conscious self. (For example, he crosswires the pain/pleasure centers of a porn star so that she enthusiastically masturbates herself to death with a piece of broken glass.) And they have to confront the likelihood that this killer is right, that in fact all the evidence supports his perspective and the whole free-will camp really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. So this character who stalks through the book, rewiring the heads of his victims so that they eat children and kill for God, this entity that has stopped thinking of itself as a person and only refers to itself as “the nervous system known as X” — is in fact the first and only “truly sane” human being on the planet.

  42. And they have to confront the likelihood that this killer is right, that in fact all the evidence supports his perspective and the whole free-will camp really doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

    But this is a part I don’t get. Sure, I can see how it could be something of a problem for most people, but I can’t empathize with the position very well. My general response to an obviously distraught person saying, “There is no such thing as free will!” is along the lines of, “Is that a problem?”

    But then, I’m the same way with religion. So we’re purposeless flukes of soulless natural processes with no future or hope? So? You may have time to get depressed about that sort of thing, but in the mean time, there are a lot of lives out there that need to be either extended or shortened, as the situation warrants, and as long as that is true, I’ve got a job to do.

  43. OK, we live (some of us) in a post-Copernicus, post-Darwin, post-Freud (whether or not he was quite right about how the mind works) society. So we have isolated characters in Blindsight and Neuropath who are post-free will – now how about seeing an extrapolation of a functioning society or community off such people?

    I don’t mean a community of perfectly camouflaged zombies (that reminds me of a line from Steve Wright: “Last night someone burgled my apartment and replaced everything with an exact replica”). Perhaps the crew of Theseus on a larger scale and taken as the norm?

    Rorschach was explicitly described as a Chinese Room, but the same could be said of Theseus I have a feeling that our relationship with technology is developing in such a way that we’re all going to be living in our own Chinese Rooms.

  44. It seems that it’s all a matter of where we draw the lines. On Quirks and Quarks (ain’t podcasts great?) they mentioned a guy who became a paedophile when his brain tumor got too large. Sure, correlation instead of causation, but my wife pointed out that by U.S. law he’s ill, not a criminal.

    I then took all of what we were talking about and pointed out that the implications of that priniciple is that there is no such thing as crime, deviance, etc – just medical conditions. (We didn’t really delve into the niche aspect of things.)

    I suspect it’s unlikely that our posited posthumans are going to fully replace the current genotype anytime soon, which means there’s going to be a significant period of time where society is wrapping its head around this concept – which is totally alien to the vengance/justice meme that we also tend to carry around.

    Do you have a law background as well, Peter? ;)

  45. ar warned

    there are a lot of lives out there that need to be either extended or shortened, as the situation warrants, and as long as that is true, I’ve got a job to do.

    Note to self: avoid dark alleyways containing individuals who show signs of animé/Half-Life fetishism.

    brett concluded

    I have a feeling that our relationship with technology is developing in such a way that we’re all going to be living in our own Chinese Rooms.

    Indeed, this is emerging as one of the themes of “Dumbspeech”.

    and Steve said

    I suspect it’s unlikely that our posited posthumans are going to fully replace the current genotype anytime soon, which means there’s going to be a significant period of time where society is wrapping its head around this concept

    And that is one of the emerging punchlines of this York keynote address I should be working on now.

    Do you have a law background as well, Peter? ;)

    Does a criminal record count?

  46. There did occur this little exchange:

    we’re all going to be living in our own Chinese Rooms.

    Indeed, this is emerging as one of the themes of “Dumbspeech”.

    Leading myself to think, perhaps a little off-topic and a bit obscurely, “Ah, now that’s going to be an interesting counterpoint/elaboration/twist on the vision of infinite connectivity in Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto

  47. I hardly think that a single avatar constitutes fetishism. I don’t even read Yotsuba&!; I just liked the image. In any case, I wouldn’t be much of a problem in a dark alley; while I do work in the killing-people industry, I don’t do it personally.

    Though the point still stands: why do people get all worked up at the prospect of having not been created for a purpose, or lacking free-will?

  48. I don’t know if “worked up” is the right term, at least for the free-will part of the question. I don’t think we actually believe it, not in our guts, even though the evidence is pretty incontrovertible. We just feel a sense of free will so profoundly that we don’t take the alternative seriously even though we should. But the evidence does make for some wild discussion.

    As for getting riled over the prospect of not having been created with a purpose, the argument I’ve heard is that without some overlord keeping tabs on us, without a goal imposed from above, we will slip into a morass of amorality and decadence and immediately resort to brute force and intimidation to solve our conflicts. And I for one am certainly glad that we don’t live in a world that’s anything like that.

    (By the way, I actually like your hybrid icon. And what is your people-killing industry, if I may ask?)

  49. In the time since I wrote my last comment, I have gained insight into my question. It was somewhat rhetorical to begin with; mostly an effort to get someone who believes that the lack of purpose and/or freewill is a problem to explain why this is so. I understand such possible sources as confirmation bias and the arguments put forth in favor of religion, but none of that is quite personal enough for me. I can understand it as a phenomenon, but I cannot seem to empathize with it.

    But apparently the processes at work here are more specific to being human than to thought in general: apparently, humans are born with an innate sense that things exist for a purpose, or so I read from a article in the May 2007 issue of Science. Full text here, albeit without the relevant citation. You read Science, right? I’m sure you can dig up the article, find the relevant citation, and then find the original document that made this claim.

    Such naive beliefs can be overcome with education, apparently, but this does not always occur. This lends credence to my previous suspicion that people who cannot imagine functioning in a purposeless world are in some sense immature. Now I have evidence.

    Though, in regards to freewill, perhaps it is not so much of a problem of accepting a lack of freewill, so much as the particular mechanisms at work. According to the same article, children also seem to inherently believe in mental dualism. Yet, I also recall reading elsewhere that children have an innate sense of causality. Approached logically, if you accept the premise of universal causality, then any sort of extra-material soul or spirit much have some mechanisms by which it achieves its thoughts. So why not just let the brain take the same role? Ahh, but apparently this contradicts the gut sense of mental dualism that humans seem to have. But otherwise, insofar as free-will is a meaningful concept to begin with, it should be just as real or illusionary in both materialistic and dualistic worlds.

    And what is your people-killing industry, if I may ask?

    Military. United States Navy, to be specific. To be straight-forward about it, I’m not actually reporting for training for another 2 years, though they do already have a binding lease on my soul. Even though I probably won’t be engaging in combat, my presence will presumably free up someone else to do so, or make the actual combatants more effective.

    This does make my comment about shortening lives somewhat overly dramatic, but in regards to extending them, I honestly think that regularly undergoing blood-donation does count for something.

  50. A bit late to the discussion, but as for zombie detection, and disregarding physical *actions* as you’ve stated, wouldn’t heat detecting apparatus work best?

    It’s just a thought, but, since they’ve already been dead (and are oftentimes rotting), it would *seem* to be safe to assume that zombies run on a much lower temperature than mosts humans. So it stands to reason that one might be able to use infrared viewing apparatus (that can be picked up at military surplus stores if you don’t happen to be National Guard or Army), to detect whether a person is a Zombie or a “Sentry”, ne?

    According to Science.Nasa:
    Humans, at normal body temperature, radiate most strongly in the infrared at a wavelength of about 10 microns.

    with the reasoning that zombies, being dead, would not radiate and more strongly than the average NON-ambulatory corpse, there should be a marked difference in body temperature. Probably