Whispers in the Vomit Vale.

.

 

The hatch closed at our backs, swallowing us in brief darkness; it brightened to dim twilight as our eyes adjusted to luciferin constellations glowing dimly on all sides. We stood on a catwalk half a meter above rock and drifts of thin soil. (Eri‘s botanicals take their lead from the rainforests of Earth’s long-dead tropics: impoverished soil, production and nutrients all locked up in the biomass.)

We followed the path. My BUD flickered.

The catwalk forked. Lian nudged me right: “This way.” After a few meters I closed my eyes experimentally, found myself just the tiniest bit uncertain where down was.

Glistening black meshes with gelatinous orbs— each the size of an eyeball— glowing at their interstices. Thick ropey trunks arching up through the vault like a great charred rib cage, festooned with vines and patio lanterns. They leaned just a little, as though bent by some prevailing wind.

BUD flickered again, faded, sparked back to life as one of the Glade’s mechanical moles snuffled past close enough to pinch-hit as a booster station. We pushed on in the direction of that imaginary wind. The trees leaned further as we advanced; their bases thickened and spread wide across the ground, trunks buttressed against forces that pulled simultaneously along different bearings. The Glade passes right over the Higgs conduit, between the core that contains our singularity and the maw where its wormhole emerges. The vectors get messy in between. Down is mostly coreward but a little forward too; how far those downs diverge depends on how fast Eri happens to be falling through the cosmos at any given moment. Twisted trees and Kai’s squicky inner ears are the price we pay for a reactionless drive.

BUD finally went down and stayed there: victim of signal-squelching rocks and bioelectric static and drive circuitry that couldn’t possibly be expected to control such vast energies without emitting some of its own. This dead link was our privacy alarm. As long as we were blind, we were alone.

“So what the hell were you doing, Li?”

She didn’t answer at first. She didn’t answer at all.

Instead: “You read books, right?”

“Sure. Sometimes.”

“You plug in, play realsies. Go touring. Watch ennies.”

“What’s your point?”

“You’ve seen the way people lived. Kids with cats, or hacking their tutors, or parasailing on their birthdays.”

“Yeah. So?”

“You’ve done more than see it, Sunday. You feed off it. You base your life on it. Our speech patterns, our turns of phrase— fuck, our swear words for chrissake— all of it’s lifted from a culture that hasn’t existed for hundreds of petasecs. We’ve been out here so very long, Sunday.”

I admit I rolled my eyes. “Enough with the world-weary ancient immortal shtick, okay? The fact that we’ve been out here for sixty million years—”

“Sixty-five.”

“— doesn’t change the fact that you’ve only been awake for twenty, tops.”

“My point is we’re living dead lives. Theirs, not ours. We never went hiking, or scuba diving, or—”

“Sure we have. We can. Any time we want. You just said so.”

“They cheated us. We wake up, we build their fucking gates, we recycle their lives because they never gave us any of our own.”

I should have pitied her. Instead, surprisingly, I found myself getting angry. “Do you even remember the shape Earth was in when we left? I wouldn’t trade this life for centuries on that grubby shithole if God Itself came through the gate and offered me a ticket. I like this life.”

We regarded each other through the gloom for a moment. Finally, Lian spoke— and there was none of my anger there, only sadness.

“You like it because they built you to. Because they’d never get any competent baseline to sign up for a one-way trip in a dead rock to the end of time, so they built this special model all small and twisted, like— like those plants they used to grow. In Japan or somewhere. Something so stunted it couldn’t even imagine spending its life outside a cage.”

Bonsai, I remembered. But I didn’t want to encourage her.

“You liked it here too,” I said instead. “You liked it just fine.” Until you broke.

“Yeah.” She nodded, and even in the dimness I got the sense of a sad smile. “But I got better.”

“Lian. What were you doing in the crawlway?”

She sighed. “I was running a bypass on one of the Chimp’s sensory trunks.”

“I saw that. What for?”

“Nothing critical. I was just going to— inject some noise into the channel.”

“Noise.”

“Static. To reduce signal fidelity.”

I spread my palms: So?

“I was trying to take back a little control, okay? For all of us!”

“How in Christ’s name does compromising Chimp’s—”

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

“You were increasing the uncertainty threshold…” I murmured.

“Yeah. Exactly.”

Because the only reason Eri shipped out with meat on board in the first place was for those times when the Chimp didn’t feel up to managing a build on his own, when he needed some of that organic Human insight to get him past the unknown variables and halting states. And the less reliable his data, the less certain he’d be that he could handle it on his own. Lian was trying to tilt the algos towards Human input.

In principle, it was a pretty clever hack. In practice…

“Even if you figured out some way to keep the Chimp from just— finding your monkey wrenches and fixing them while we’re all down for the count, do you have any idea how many of those cables you’d have to jam up before you even started to make a dent in the redundant systems?”

“Somewhere between two thousand and twenty-seven hundred.” Then added: “You don’t have to cut the inputs, you just have to— fog them a little. Widen the confidence limits.”

“Uh huh. And how many of those nerves you hacked into so far?”

“Five.”

I guess maybe I thought that she’d realize how insane the whole idea was if she said it aloud. Nothing in her voice suggested she had.

“Why do you even want this? It’s not like Chimp’s fucking up the builds when we’re not up to keep an eye on him.”

“It’s not about the builds, Sun. It’s about being Human. It’s about getting back a little autonomy.”

“And what are you gonna do with that autonomy when you get it?”

“First, gain freedom. Lots of time to figure out what to do with it afterward.”

“You think if Chimp wakes us up often enough he’ll just roll over, suggest we all go back to Earth to drop off anyone who’s got bored along the way? You think if we just circle back around to the last build and wait for a while, some magic silver ship is gonna sail out and give all first-class tickets to the retirement paradise of our choice?” There’d actually been some talk about that, back at the beginning. It may even have been part of the original mission profile, before those first few gates opened up and spat out nothing but automation and ancient binary. Before the next few just sat there empty. Before the gremlins started. But it must have been thirty million years since I’d heard anyone bring up the subject as anything other than a cheap punchline.

“What were you thinking?” I finished.

Something changed in her posture. “I suppose I was thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every century or two, building toys for ungrateful grandchildren and knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like—” She glanced around— “a nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.”

“Li, seriously.” I tried to de-escalate. “I don’t understand the problem. Any time you want a— a green forest, just plug in. Any time you want to hike the desert or dive Europa or, or fly into the sunset, just plug in. You can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.”

“It’s not real, okay?”

“You can’t tell the difference.”

“I know the difference.” She looked back at me from a face full of blue-gray shadows. “And I don’t understand you either, okay? I thought we were the same, I thought I was just following in your footsteps…”

Silence.

“Why would you think that?” I asked at last.

“Because you fought it too, didn’t you? Before we ever shipped out. You were always pushing back, you were always challenging everyone and everything about the mission. You were, like, six years old and you called bullshit on Mamoro Sawada. Nobody could believe it. I mean, there we all were, programmed for the mission before we were even born, everything preloaded and hardwired and you— threw it off, somehow. Resisted. Way I hear it they nearly kicked you out a few times.”

“Where did you hear that.” Because I was really damn sure that Lian Wei and I did not go through training within ten thousand kliks of each other.

“Kai told me.”

“Kai talks too much.”

Her shoulders rose, fell. “What happened to you, Sunday? How did you go from Hell-raiser to Chimp’s lapdog?”

“Fuck you, Lian. You don’t know me.”

“I know you better than you think.”

“No you don’t. The fact that you thought for one cursed corsec that I could ever be anything like you just proves it.”

She shook her head. “You can be such an asshole sometimes.”

I can be an asshole? How about a show of hands” —raising mine— “everyone who hasn’t stabbed anyone in the face today?” She looked away. “What’s that? Just me?”

“Case in point,” she whispered.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Cambridge Analytica and the Other Turing Test.

Not even scripted.

Not even scripted.

Near the end of the recent German movie “Er Ist Wieder Da” (“Look Who’s Back”), Adolph Hitler— transported through time to the year 2015— is picking up where he left off. On the roof of the television studio that fueled his resurgence (the network thought they were just exploiting an especially-tasteless Internet meme for ratings), the sad-sack freelancer who discovered “the world’s best Hitler impersonator” confronts his Frankenstein’s monster— but Hitler proves unkillable. Even worse, he makes some good points:

“In 1933, people were not fooled by propaganda. They elected a leader who openly disclosed his plans with great clarity. The Germans elected me… ordinary people who chose to elect an extraordinary man, and entrust the fate of the country to him.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?”

It’s a good movie, hilarious and scary and sociologically plausible (hell, maybe sociologically inevitable), and given that one of Hitler’s lines is “Make Germany Great Again” it’s not surprising that it’s been rediscovered in recent months. Imagine a cross between “Borat”, “The Terminator”, and “Springtime for Hitler”, wrapped around a spot-on re-enactment of that Hitler-in-the-Bunker meme.

But that rooftop challenge: that, I think, really cuts to the heart of things: What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban elections?

I feel roughly the same way every time I read another outraged screed about Cambridge Analytica.

The internet’s been all a’seethe with such stories lately. The details are arcane, but the take-home message is right there in the headlines: The Rise of the Weaponized AI Propaganda Machine; Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?; Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media.

The executive summary goes something like this: An evil right-wing computer genius has developed scarily-effective data scraping techniques which— based entirely on cues gleaned from social media— knows individual voters better than do their own friends, colleagues, even family. This permits “behavioral microtargetting”: campaign messages customized not for boroughs or counties or demographic groups, but at you. Individually. A bot for every voter.

Therefore democracy itself is in danger.

Put aside for the moment the fact that the US isn’t a functioning democracy anyway (unless you define “democracy” as a system in which— to quote Thomas Piketty— “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose”). Ignore any troublesome doubts about whether the same folks screaming about Cambridge Analytica would be quite so opposed to the tech if it had been used to benefit Clinton instead of Trump. (It’s not as though the Dems didn’t have their own algorithms, their own databased targeting systems; it’s just that those algos  really sucked.) Put aside the obvious partisan elements and focus on the essential argument: the better They know you, the more finely They can tune their message. The more finely They tune their message, the less freedom you have. To quote directly from Helbing et al over on the SciAm blog,

The trend goes from programming computers to programming people.” [breathless italics courtesy of the original authors]

Or from Berit Anderson, over at Medium.com:

“Instead of having to deal with misleading politicians, we may soon witness a Cambrian explosion of pathologically-lying political and corporate bots that constantly improve at manipulating us.”

You’d expect me to be all over this, right? What could be more up my alley than Machiavellian code which  treats us not as autonomous beings but as physical systems, collections of inputs and outputs whose state variables show not the slightest trace of Free Will? You can almost see Valerie tapping her arrhythmic tattoos on the the bulkhead, reprogramming the crew of the Crown of Thorns without their knowledge.

And I am all over it. Kind of. I shrugged at the finding that it took Mercer’s machine 150 Facebook “Likes” to know someone better than their parents did (hell, you’d know me better than my parents did based on, like, three), but I was more impressed when I learned that 300 “Likes” is all it would take to know me better than Caitlin does. And no one has to convince me that sufficient computing power, coupled with sufficient data, can both predict and manipulate human behavior.

But so what? ‘Twas ever thus, no?

No, Helbing and his buddies assert:

“Personalized advertising and pricing cannot be compared to classical advertising or discount coupons, as the latter are non-specific and also do not invade our privacy with the goal to take advantage of our psychological weaknesses and knock out our critical thinking.”

Oh, give me a fucking break.

They’ve been taking advantage of our psychological weaknesses to knock out our critical thinking skills since before the first booth babe giggled coquettishly at the Houston Auto Show, since the first gurgling baby was used to sell Goodyear radials, since IFAW decided they could raise more funds if they showed Loretta Swit hugging baby seals instead of giant banana slugs. Advertising tries to knock out your critical thinking by definition. Every tasteless anti-abortion poster, every unfailing-cute child suffering from bowel disease in the local bus shelter, every cartoon bear doing unnatural things with toilet paper is an attempt to rewire your synapses, to literally change your mind.

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

The face of the enemy (figure: J. Albright)

Ah, but those aren’t targeted to individuals, are they? Those are crude hacks of universal gut responses, the awww when confronted with cute babies, the hubba hubba when tits are shoved in the straight male face. (Well, almost universal; show me a picture of a cute baby and I’m more likely to vomit than coo.) This is different, Mercer’s algos know us personally. They know us as well as our friends, family, lovers!

Maybe so. But you know who else knows us as well as our friends, family and lovers? Our friends, family, and lovers. The same folks who sit across from us at the pub or the kitchen table, who cuddle up for a marsupial cling when the lights go out. Such people routinely use their intimate knowledge of us to convince us to see a particular movie or visit a particular restaurant— or, god forbid, vote for a particular political candidate. People who, for want of a better word, attempt to reprogram us using sound waves and visual stimuli; they do everything the bots do, and they probably still do it better.

What do you want to do, Sawatzki? Ban advertising? Ban debate? Ban conversation?

I hear that Scottsman, there in the back: he says we’re not talking about real debate, real conversation. When Cambridge Analytica targets you there’s no other being involved; just code, hacking meat.

As if it would be somehow better if meat were hacking meat. The prediction that half our jobs will be lost to automation within the next couple of decades is already a  tired cliché, but most experts don’t react to such news by demanding the repeal of Moore’s Law. They talk about retraining, universal basic income— adaptation, in a word. Why should this be any different?

Don’t misunderstand me. The fact that our destiny is in the hands of evil right-wing billionaires doesn’t make me any happier than it makes the rest of you. I just don’t see the ongoing automation of that process as anything more than another step along the same grim road they’ve been driving us down for decades. Back in 2008 and 2012 I don’t remember anyone howling with outrage over Obama’s then-cutting-edge voter-profiling database. I do remember a lot of admiring commentary on his campaign’s ability to “get out the vote”.

Curious that the line between grass-roots activism and totalitarian neuroprogramming should fall so neatly between Then and Now.

Cambridge Analytica’s psyops tech doesn’t so much “threaten democracy” as drive one more nail into its coffin. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, the corpse has been rotting for some time now.

‘Course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight back. There are ways to do that, even on an individual level. I’m not talking about the vacuous aspirations peddled over on SciAm, by folks who apparently don’t know the difference between a slogan and a strategy (Ensure that people have access to their data! Make government accountable!) I’m talking about things you can do right now. Easy things.

The algos eat data? Stop feeding them. Don’t be a Twit: if all Twitter’s other downsides aren’t enough to scare you off, maybe the prospect of starving the beast will lure you away. If you can’t bring yourself to quit Facebook, at least stop “liking” things— or even better, “Like” things that you actually hate, throw up chaff to contaminate the data set and make you a fuzzier target. (When I encounter something I find especially endearing on Facebook, I often tag it with one of those apoplectic-with-rage emojis). Get off Instagram and GotUrBalls. Use Signal. Use a fucking VPN. Make Organia useless to them.

What’s that you say? Thousands of people around the world are just dying to know your favorite breadfruit recipe? Put it in a blog. It won’t stop bots from scraping your data, but at least they’ll have to come looking for you; you won’t be feeding yourself into a platform that’s been explicitly designed to harvest and resell your insides.

The more of us who refuse to play along— the more of us who cheat by feeding false data into the system—  the less we have to fear from code that would read our minds. And if most people can’t be bothered— if all that clickbait, all those emojis and upward-pointing thumbs are just too much of a temptation— well, we do get the government we deserve.  Just don’t complain when, after wading naked through the alligator pool, something bites your legs off.

I’m going to let Berit Anderson play me offstage:

“Imagine that in 2020 you found out that your favorite politics page or group on Facebook didn’t actually have any other human members, but was filled with dozens or hundreds of bots that made you feel at home and your opinions validated? Is it possible that you might never find out?”

I think she intends this as a warning, a dire If This Goes On portent. But what Anderson describes is  the textbook definition of a Turing Test, passed with flying colors. She sees an internet filled with zombies: I see the birth of True AI.

Of course, there are two ways to pass a Turing Test.  The obvious route is to design a smarter machine, one that can pass for human. But as anyone who’s spent any time on a social platform knows, people can be as stupid, as repetitive, and as vacuous as any bot. So the other path is to simply make people dumber, so they can be more easily fooled by machines.

I’m starting to think that second approach might be easier.

Posted in: Big Brother, politics, rant by Peter Watts 100 Comments

Oprah’s X-Men: Thoughts on Logan

Lers of Spoi. You have been warned.

Nobody said mutation was pretty.

Nobody said mutation was pretty.

There’s always been a contingent of X-Men fans who insist on seeing Mutant as Allegory, a metaphor—albeit a heavy-handed one— for prejudice and disenfranchisement. Mutants routinely get invoked as a sort of Other Of The Week: stand-ins for unwanted immigrants, untrusted ethnicities, oppressed orientations. I’ve never been a big reader of the comics, but certainly the films have played into this. One memorable example occurs early in the first movie, when a bewildered parent asks her child: “Honey, have you tried just not being a mutant?” (An even more memorable example is young Magneto’s psionic awakening in a Nazi concentration camp.)

I’ve never bought into this interpretation, for the same reason I reject the claim that Oprah Winfrey was “disenfranchised” when some racist idiot in Zurich refused to show her a handbag because it was “too expensive” for a black woman to afford. When you can buy the whole damn store and the street it sits on with pocket change; when you can buy the home of the asshole who just disrespected you and have it bulldozed; when you can use your influence to get that person fired in the blink of an eye and turn her social media life into a living hell— the fact that you don’t do any of those things does not mean that you’ve been oppressed. It means you’ve been merciful to someone you could just as easily squash like a bug.

Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine. Sure, baselines fear and revile mutants; that’s a far cry from “disenfranchising” them. How long would gay-bashing be a thing, if gays could strike down their attackers with lightning bolts?

To my mind, X-Men are the Oprahs of the Marvel Universe. Immensely powerful. Inexplicably patient with the small-minded. And the fact that they’ve been consistently portrayed as victims has significantly compromised my suspension of disbelief— and hence, my enjoyment— of pretty much every X-Men movie I’ve taken in.

Right up to the best of the lot so far, the intimate, humane, sometimes brilliant Logan.

Logan is far and away the best X-Men movie I’ve ever seen (I’m tempted to say it’s the best X-Men movie ever made, but I haven’t seen Apocalypse so who knows). The characterizations are deeper, their relationships more nuanced. The acting is better: you wouldn’t expect less from Patrick Stewart, who somehow managed to maintain his dignity and gravitas throughout even the most idiotic ST:TNG episodes (looking at you, “Skin of Evil”), but the rest of the cast keeps up with him and makes it look effortless. The fight choreography is bone-crunchingly beautiful. This is the Unforgiven of Marvel movies, a story that focuses not on some absurdly high-stakes threat to Life As We Know It but on the more intimate costs to lives as we knew them. It’s a story about entropy and unhappy endings. It earns its 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Until the last act, when it throws it all away.

I’m not just nitpicking about the canonical dumbness inevitable in any movie based on a sixties-era comic franchise. (If I were, I might wonder how Logan’s 25-cm claws manage to retract into his arms without immobilizing his wrists like rebar through salami; the guy must have to extend his claws every time he wants to hold a spoonful of Cheerios. It’s a good thing they don’t sell milk in bags down there.) I’m complaining about something which, I think, largely betrays all that resonant, character-based story-telling that comprises the bulk of the movie. Or rather, I’m complaining about two things:

  1. When the bad guys know that their quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name would they try to take them down with conventional gun-toting infantry? They’ve got drones, for Chrissake: why not use robots to shoot the kids from above the treeline? Why not snipe them from a safe distance with tranquilizers, or gas the forest, or do any of a dozen other things that could take down their targets without exposing ill-equipped flesh-and-blood to mutant countermeasures?
  2. When said quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name do they not do any of that until half of them have already been captured and Logan himself is half-dead? We’re not talking about do-goody pacifists here; these aren’t adults who’ve made a conscious decision to eschew violence for the greater good. These are ten-year-old kids— with all the emotional maturity that implies— who’ve been trained as supersoldiers almost from the moment of conception. Back in the first act Laura must have single-handedly killed twenty heavily-armed cyber-enhanced psycho killers with no weapons but what God and the bioengineers gave her. So why are these superkillers running like frightened animals in the first place? Why aren’t they laying traps, implementing countermeasures, fighting back? They know how to do it; hell, they don’t know how to do anything else.

The answer, I’m guessing, is because writer James Mangold bought into the same bullshit allegory that so many others have: no matter the canon, no matter their powers, these kids have to be victims, even though the script has already shown us that they definitively are not. They must be oppressed and disempowered by an intolerant world, because that’s what the whole X-Men allegory thing is all about.

And in buying into that narrative, Mangold renders Logan’s ultimate sacrifice pretty much meaningless.  The children he died protecting were far more powerful than he was: numerically, psionically, even at simple hand-to-hand combat. If they hadn’t been shackled by allegorical fiat they could have won that battle before Logan ever showed up.

Which means that Logan died for nothing. And that’s not some nerdy quibble along the lines of the transporter doesn’t work like that; it’s a betrayal of nuanced characters we’ve come to care about, all for the sake of a mutants-as-victims narrative that never made any sense to begin with.

If the screenwriters had to indulge their victim mindset, they could have done so without sacrificing story logic or throwing away two hours of character development. Here’s a thought: Posit that mutant powers only manifest at puberty (something established way back at the start of the franchise, with Rogue’s first adolescent kiss). A few of these kids are verging on adulthood, but not most; they’re still vulnerable to men with guns.  They’re being hunted not for what they can do now, but for what they’ll be able to do if allowed to live another year or two.  Let the stress of being cornered, of seeing their fellows mowed down, the sheer adrenaline response of fight/flight be the trigger that activates just a few of the older ones, allows their powers to manifest: not in full-on crush-all-opposition mode, but just enough to hold on until Logan arrives to turn the tide.  It would change very little in terms of pacing or screen time; it would change everything in terms of earned emotional impact.

But no. What we’re given is a third-act chase scene almost as dumb as the climax of Star Trek Beyond. Which is a shame, because Star Trek Beyond was a loud dumb movie from the start; one more dumb element was par for the course. Logan, by way of contrast, is a thoughtful, melancholy rumination on the whole superhero premise; it remains, for the most part, a thing of beauty.

Too bad about that big festering pustule on the forehead.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 37 Comments

Pyrkon, Philosophy, William Shatner

pyrkonBOG1

The concom is already hard at work designing appropriate attire for the BOG. This artist's conception is by Stanisław Czarnecki.

The concom is already hard at work designing appropriate attire for the BOG. This artist’s conception is by Stanisław Czarnecki.

They’ve announced it on Facebook, they’ve put it up on their website, so I guess I can announce it here: after a five-year absence, I seem to be returning to Poland as a “Special Guest” of Pyrkon: a massive Polish con attended by somewhere around forty thousand folks annually. According to the facebook comments attending the announcement, negotiations to bring BOG along are ongoing. So if you happen to be in Poznań between April 28-30, I will be making myself available to either a) apologize for putting my Nowa Fantastyka column on hiatus again, or b) accept your gratitude for same.

I’m also supposed to deliver some kind of lecture for the better part of an hour. I have about two months. Suggestions welcome.

*

Since I’m already thumping the ol’ tub, this might also be a good time to point out that Blindsight has made it onto Greg Hickey’s list of “The 105 Best Philosophical Novels“. According to the text, though, it’s not exactly Greg Hickey’s list: it’s based on “curated lists from The Guardian, Flavorwire and more, suggestions from readers on Goodreads, Quora and Reddit, and picks from philosophical fiction authors like Khaled Hosseini, Irvin D. Yalom, Rebecca Goldstein and Daniel Quinn”. On first glance that seems to be a pretty credible set of criteria (for obvious reasons, I’m not going to take a second glance).

Blindsight ranks 71rst overall, which puts it just behind Lord of the Flies and a few spots ahead of Blood Meridian and The Idiot.  It kicks the ass of various titles by Beckett, Dick, Vonnegut, Rand, and Atwood, and has its ass kicked in turn by other titles by the same authors. We all get our asses kicked by Camus’s The Stranger.

I find this list a bit suspect— maybe “mystifying” is a better word— and not just because I’m on it. For one thing, rankings were based on “a weighted score to each novel appearing on a previous list and combined these scores with votes from readers and authors to produce a cumulative score”, which implies some sort of quality-based hierarchy. But the list is also subdivided into other groups— “Black Tragicomedies”, “Cult Favorites”, “Social Critiques” (Blindsight falls under “Diamonds in the Rough”)— and all the titles in each of these groups is ranked contiguously. That is, all the “Black Tragicomedies” are worse than all the “Portraits”, all the “Portraits” are worse than all the “Mindfucks”, and so on. I find this odd.

I’m also a bit suspect of the whole idea of “philosophical novel” as a category. Fortunately I got a chance to vent on this very subject, since Greg approached me for a list of my own “favorite philosophical novels” (He includes a pdf of  annotated “Author’s picks” as a downloadable extra on the same page; my own remarks are perhaps the least informative of the eleven authors who weigh in). I tried to deflect attention from my own  lack of education by questioning the very definition of the term. “You could argue that science fiction is infested with philosophy, almost by definition,” I began, rattling off a list of obvious examples. “And those are brilliant books, and they do contain philosophical elements, but to describe all these as philosophical novels is like proudly proclaiming William Shatner to be Canadian because he passed through town on his way to Hollywood. You can make the case, technically, but it makes you look really insecure.”

Anyway. It’s a fascinating list, refreshingly genre-heavy (Dick and Stephenson are all over it, although Huxley’s the only SF author to make the Top Ten)— and if nothing else, it’ll give you a whole lot more to stick on your bucket list.

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only read a quarter of them.

You Want It Darker.

 

Modified from “toa-lagara”

They plummet head-first, dragged down by a hundred kilograms of improvised ballast. Asante chokes, jams his mouthpiece into place; coughs seawater through the exhaust and sucks in a hot lungful of fresh-sparked hydrox. Pressure builds against his eardrums. He swallows, swallows again, manages to keep a few millibars ahead of outright rupture. He has just enough freedom of movement to claw at his face and slide the defractors over his eyes. The ocean clicks into focus, clear as acid, empty as green glass.

Green turns white.

Seen in that flash-blinded instant: four thin streams of bubbles, rising to a surface gone suddenly incandescent. Four dark bodies, falling away from the light. A thunderclap rolls through the water, deep, downshifted, as much felt as heard. It comes from nowhere and everywhere.

The roof of the ocean is on fire. Some invisible force shreds their contrails from the top down, tears those bubbles into swirling silver confetti. The wave-front races implacably after them. The ocean bulges, recoils. It squeezes Asante like a fist, stretches him like rubber; Tiwana and Acosta tumble away in the backwash. He flails, stabilizes himself as the first jagged shapes resolve overhead: dismembered chunks of the booby-trapped gyland, tumbling with slow majesty into the depths. A broken wedge of deck and stairwell passes by a few meters away, tangled in monofilament. A thousand glassy eyes stare back from the netting as the wreckage fades to black.

Asante scans the ocean for that fifth bubble trail, that last dark figure to balance Those Who Left against Those Who Returned. No one overhead. Below, a dim shape that has to be Garin shares its mouthpiece with the small limp thing in its arms. Beyond that, the hint of a deeper dark against the abyss: a shark-like silhouette keeping station amid a slow rain of debris. Waiting to take its prodigal children home again.

They’re too close to shore. There might be witnesses. So much for stealth ops. So much for low profiles and no-questions-asked. Metzinger’s going to be pissed.

Then again, they are in the Gulf of Mexico.

Any witnesses will probably just think it caught fire again.

Posted in: fiblet by Peter Watts 22 Comments

Lizards in the Sink with David.

(A Nowa Fantastyka reprint)

Squippersnapper

Squippersnapper

Back when I was in grad school, I built an electric water pipe out of Erlenmeyer flasks, rubber stoppers, and an aquarium air pump. It fed into an inhaler that dangled over my bed like the deployed O2 mask of a falling airliner— right next to the control panel that ran my planetarium, a home-built device that projected stars and nebulae and exploding spaceships across the far wall. The stars actually moved in 3D, came right out of the center of the wall and spread to the edges at different speeds. Wisps of nebulae would undulate as they streamed past. Planets swelled across the screen, rotating. Not bad for a contraption built out of old turntables and light bulbs and half-melted plastic peanut butter jars stuffed with colored cellophane. You haven’t lived until you’ve got stoned and sailed through the Trifid Nebula to the strains of Yes.

Back then I was what some might call a “pothead”. And yet I never progressed beyond cannabis, never even dabbled in hallucinogenics.

In hindsight, it was a serious deficiency in my upbringing. Two thirds of those who’ve used psychoactives describe the experience as among the most spiritually significant of their lives. MRI studies show that LSD wires together parts of the brain that normally don’t even talk to each other. It deconstructs one’s sense of Self right down at the neuronal level, and you know me: I’m flat-out fascinated by this stuff. So why, half a century of my life already spent, had I never tried LSD?

This is your brain on drugs. Many questions!

This is your brain on drugs. Many questions!

About a year ago I voiced this regret to a friend of mine, a guy I’d first met when he was just a bright-eyed adolescent asking me to talk to his high-school English class. Somehow he’d grown up in the meantime (I myself remained utterly unchanged); now he has a PhD under his belt, teaches at a local university. He took pity on me; a few months back he slipped me a couple of confetti flakes laced with hallucinogenic goodness.

I knew people who swore by the stuff. I also knew people who admitted that under its influence they’d wandered down the middle of busy streets, or tripped along the edges of the Scarborough Bluffs with a strange sense of invulnerability. I was curious, but I had no great desire to end up as a puddle of viscera at the foot of some cliff. I chose a more controlled approach. I called on my buddy Dave Nickle to ride shotgun.

“Three ground rules,” Dave told me upon his arrival. “First rule: You don’t leave the house. Second rule: When you break the first rule and leave the house, do not go into the road. Third rule: when I say Stop what you’re doing right now, you stop doing whatever it is you’re doing. Right. Now.”

I sucked the first tab to mush. Not much happened, beyond a growing impatience at Dave’s rate of progress through the game of SOMA he was playing while we waited for things to get interesting. So I popped the second one after about an hour.

Things got interesting.

*

It kind of sneaks up on you.

At first it just feels like being drunk or mildly stoned: light-headedness, a loss of somatic inertia, but without any nausea or hypersalivating spinniness. After a while the edges of vision start to look a little like those optical illusions you see in Scientific American— you know, those moiré patterns that seem to be moving even though you know they’re not. The effect starts at the edge of vision, spreads inward to the center; suddenly the folds in my bedcovers are rippling like rivulets in an alluvial delta. Plunging my splayed fingers down onto the bed stops that movement dead, for a few moments at least; my fingertips somehow anchor the material, force it to behave. But then those rivulets start eroding around them, as though my fingers are sticks in a stream: not stopping the flow, but only reshaping it. No matter how hard I stare, no matter how intense my focus, I can’t get them to stop.

*

I’m a ghost for a while, my body as ethereal as mist. I think I know why. They’ve done experiments where you watch someone say a word, but the word you hear doesn’t match the speaker’s mouth movements. The brain reconciles that conflict by hearing different sounds than those actually spoken, sounds closer to what the mouth seems to be saying.

I think this is something like that.

I feel incredibly weak. I just know, down in the gut, that I lack the strength to even lift my arm off the bed. And yet I do more than that: I rise up off the bed entirely, go into the next room, do a few chin-ups. How does the brain reconcile that? How does the wetware square you’re too weak to move with you’re moving? I think it’s decided that I must be massless. I lack the strength to move anything; I am moving; therefore I must be made of nothing.  I become a ghost, utterly free of inertia. I feel the truth of that right down in my diaphanous bones.

*

There are different cognitive modes, mindsets as distinct as delight and dementia. They do not overlap. Sometimes the hallucinations are vivid and undeniable but my mind is stone cold sober: I can look hard at the bright static image on the screen, see beyond doubt that the things there are moving— and yet know intellectually that they’re not. I report the hallucination with clarity and concision, comment both on what I see and the impossibility of it, as though I were dictating the results of an autopsy. My senses are lying, but my mind is clear; I am not fooled.

I swear to God the lights in that ring moved, like traffic headlights. Going both ways.

I swear to God the lights in that ring moved, like traffic headlights. Going both ways.

Other times, though, I don’t even know if this thing called “I” even exists. It seems to— to spread out across the room, as though I’ve become some kind of diffuse neural net hanging just below the ceiling. It’s not a visual hallucination— this mode’s pretty much hallucination-free except for a ubiquitous heat-shimmer effect that makes everything ripple[1]. This is a more visceral, intuitive sense of being distributed. Every now and then some ganglion in the net lights up at random, and the system blurts out whatever words that node contains.

It is at one of these times that Dave sadistically engages me— apparently he thinks there still is a “me”— in political discourse. (I believe this is known in the vernacular as “Harshing the Buzz”.) Somehow we’re talking about the US election, and the distributed neural net wants to say: I don’t think Trump really believes all that shit he says about Muslims and Mexicans. I don’t think he believes much of anything; after all, he was staunchly pro-choice before he started running on the Republican ticket. I think he just plays to the crowd, says whatever gets him the loudest cheers. The real danger isn’t so much Trump himself, but the fact that his victory has unleashed and empowered an army of bigoted assholes down at street level. That’s what’s gonna do the most brutal damage.

This is what Neural Net Watts is trying to say. But the nodes light up at random and I think what comes out is more like “Aww, I don’t think Trump is so bad” This horrifies whatever vestigial part of me still exists; I try desperately to clarify so Dave won’t think I’m a complete asshole, but the neural net wonders “Are these words just random network discharges with no intrinsic meaning— or, have the drugs stripped away my humanitarian facade of decency revealing the true, Trump-defending monster within?” The neural net wonders how much of this it said aloud.

Some, at least. Because from a very great distance, Dave is saying “Don’t sweat it, dude; I’m not hearing anything you haven’t said before.”

*

We watch the back end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve seen that movie at least 50 times; this is the first time I’ve ever seen it while high. I am entranced, more entranced than I’ve ever been before by this masterpiece. Every frame, every sound is a revelation packed with new meaning. Five minutes after the credits, though, I can’t remember what any those meanings actually were.

This also is your brain on drugs.

This also is your brain on drugs.

I want to watch Alien next, or maybe Eraserhead. Dave guides me gently toward something less potentially-traumatizing: a fan-made episode of “Star Trek” posted on Youtube, with cardboard sets and twentysomething amateurs playing Kirk and Co. Apparently there are several of these: Star Trek Continues, they’re called collectively. This episode is a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror”. Evil Spock’s goatee looks like someone glued a shoehorn to his chin.

It’s like watching a high-school play put on by students from my ’73 shop class. The drugs do not help at all. Alien would have been far less terrifying.

I cannot look away.

*

Twenty minutes of preflight research have uncovered the fact that tomatoes apparently taste awesome when you’re high. Many have attested that the taste of a psychoactivated tomato is orgasmically intense. I have laid out an array of tomatoes, from tiny grape to humungous vine-ripened. At the height of my powers, I devour them all.

Meh.

*

In a blinding flash of insight, I understand why people always sound so trite when describing acid trips: because language evolved to describe the pedestrian realities of everyday perception. The psychoactivated brain is wired up differently; there are literally no words for the way it parses reality. These insights are literally untranslatable. Of course forcing them into words turns them into lame, trite clichés.

I try to explain this revelation to Dave. It comes out in a torrent of lame, trite clichés.

*

Coming down now. The light-headedness persists, but the shape of the world has congealed back down to its baseline state. Caitlin has returned from work; apparently Dave has been texting updates to her all day. I study the tendons in my hand as he provides my wife an executive summary. “It went okay,” he says. “There was one point where he started seeing bats everywhere, but there actually were bats, so that was fine.”

It’s been six hours, in and out. I thought it would last longer.

We release Dave from his duties with hugs and thanks and a bunch of uneaten snacks I’d stockpiled against a case of the munchies that never materialized. He is a good friend.

The last of the buzz is fading. The BUG is glad that I did not hurl myself in front of a bus. We climb into bed and boot up our laptops and discover that Leonard Cohen has died.

I hope that’s just a coincidence.

 

[1] I think these might be the source of those clichéd Aauugggh your face is melting! depictions of drug use so favored by the Just Say No crowd

Posted in: neuro by Peter Watts 31 Comments

Garden Hoses and Season’s Greetings.

So while I continue to labor at things I can’t talk about yet, y’all are gearing up to exploit expropriated Pagan rituals— whether you believe in them or not— for some time off. Good on you. I leave you with a festive, Christmas-ornamenty graphic to show that one can find the Spirit of the Season in the unlikeliest places.  I leave you with an expository fiblet from something which I expect will show up sometime in 2017.  And to those who’ve been moaning about what an absolutely shitty year this has been— and there are many of you— I leave not just a thought, but a near certainty:

Stop ragging on 2016. This time next year, you’ll be looking back on these as the Good Old Days.

See you on the other side.

There's way more where this came from. I only wish I was allowed to show it to you.

There’s more where this came from. I only wish I was allowed to show it to you.

*

This is how they told it to me when I was a child, before I learned to talk in numbers. This is the way I still remember it best. Maybe you don’t know anything but the numbers. Tough. This is the way I remember it to you:

Imagine a hose. It doesn’t matter what’s inside: water, coolant— blood, if your tastes run to the organic— so long as it’s under high pressure. A flexible tube, strained to the limit, anchored at one end.

Chop through it at the other.

It spurts. It convulses. It thrashes back and forth, spewing fluid in great arcing gouts. We call that a wormhole, of the nonrelativistic kind: fixed to a gate on one side but at panicky loose ends on the other.

It writhes that way for centuries, millennia sometimes, bashing against spacetime until another gate boots up further down the road. That new gate— calls to it, somehow. The loose end hears the call, snaps forward across the continuum and locks on for dear life. Or maybe it’s the other way around; maybe the newborn gate reaches out with some infinite elastic hand and snatches the wormhole to its bosom in the blink of an eye. You can look at it either way. The equations are time-symmetric.

Of course, those loose ends aren’t choosy; they’ll close the circuit with anything that fits, whether we approve the union or not. If some natural-born black hole wanders into range before we boot the next stepping stone, that’s it: a dead-end marriage, monogamy unto heat death. The gates are designed to put up stop signs in such cases, shut down gracefully and direct any travelers back the way they came, although I don’t know if that’s ever happened. We take steps to see that it doesn’t: scan the route ahead for lensing artifacts, steer clear of any reefs that might prove too seductive.

Sometimes, though, you want to run aground.

Because that’s the problem with building a daisy chain: each gate only goes two ways. If you don’t like the scenery when you emerge from the front door, you can either loop around and dive into the back— head on down the road, for as long as it lasts— or go back the way you came. Eriophora spins her lone thin thread around and around the Milky Way. Any gods who follow in our wake can explore this infinitesimal spiral and no more.

That’s no way to conquer a galaxy.

You need more than on-ramps and off; you need interchanges, overpasses, a way to string all your isolated superhighways together. What you need, every now and then, is to take that lone fissure in the ice and hammer it: spike it with a spiderweb of cracks that spread out in all directions, perchance to link to other threads laid along other trajectories.

So every now and then we seek out one of those bad-boy singularities. We find something with the right mass, the right spin, the right charge. We loop through its ergosphere, an eccentric energy-harvesting orbit to seed not just one gate but many: different from the usual kind, powered by the vast singularity they orbit but not tied to it.  These gates reach further than the usual kind. They could never consummate union with the daisies in our chain: they may be rooted cheek-to-jowl but their gaping hungry mouths erupt into spacetime thousands of lightyears apart.

But other webs. Other fractures, hammered into existence by other crews on other paths. Those are the nodes to which they might connect. Thus do all our pathetic one-dimensional threads build a network that truly spans the galaxy, that connects not just A to B to C but C to Z, A to Ω. It is these cracks in the ice that makes our very lives worthwhile.

So we dove headlong towards a supernova. It wasn’t much to look at now but in ten thousand years it would fall so hard off the Main Sequence that any unshielded life within a hundred lightyears would be sent straight back to raw carbon. Then it would cool. By the time we arrived— fifty, sixty terasecs down the road­— it would be ripe for the taking.

It would be a big build, the biggest we’d ever done. The Chimp would need a lot of us on deck. Twelve, maybe fifteen meat sacks all awake at once, presuming to act for the thirty thousand who weren’t. With a little luck and my own special influence, maybe we could even decide which twelve or fifteen.

That was when we would take the fucker down.

Posted in: art on ink, fiblet by Peter Watts 23 Comments

Westworld, Season 1: A Story We Tell Ourselves.

 

Huge honking spoilers.
Spoilers for everything right up to the season finale.
You have been warned.
This pretty much sums it up.

This pretty much sums it up.

Westworld ended its first season over a week ago. Most of the reviews, postmortems and retrospectives have long since gone to bed. It’s taken me somewhat longer to put this together— not just because paying gigs come before these freebie bits of opinionation, but also because I wanted to rewatch the whole season before weighing in. Westworld, as it turns out, is one of the very few shows in recent memory that not only rewards repeat viewing, but pretty much demands it.

Humble beginnings

Humble beginnings

You wouldn’t expect that, going in. The show is based on a ’73 Michael Crichton flick that rehashed the old Robots Rise Up Against Their Creators shtick— a scenario so hackneyed that Isaac Asimov invented his Three Laws thirty years earlier for no other reason than to shut it down. (To give Crichton credit, he did invoke the protosingulatarian machines-designed-by-other-machines rationale— “We don’t know exactly how they work”— to buy himself a bit of wiggle room.) And yet, almost a half-century later, this new series manages to serve up the robot rebellion of the original without resorting to magical transcend-their-programing cop-outs. In fact, as it turns out— in one of the coolest twists of an already cryogenic series— the rebellion itself has been programmed.

The tl;dr version, if you’re pressed for time: Westworld is what Humans might have aspired to be, if Humans had ever had the smarts to even imagine such ambition, or the guts to realize it.

*

There’s a certain demographic which values science fiction mainly as a vehicle for social commentary, who use the genre not as a telescope or a microscope but as a mirror. Westworld provides enough for such folks to chew on, fodder for both appreciation (Ooh! Commentary on Institutional Social Oppression and the Male Gaze!) and offense (They’re exploiting the same gratuitous violence and nudity they pretend to be critiquing!) The writers have largely immunized themselves against the sort of charges that have been leveled against, for example, Game of Thrones— the omnipresent backstage nudity of the robot “hosts” is clinical, equal-opportunity, and utterly consistent with the premise, while the human characters are pretty much bisexual by default— but I suspect that anyone who finds that stuff problematic would be more comfortable with the lazy moralizing of a show like Humans anyway. Because Westworld doesn’t just settle for finger-wagging metaphor, for using its robots as cheap stand-ins for The Oppressed Other. It’s way more ambitious than that.

Westworld is that rare kind of science fiction show that dares to base fiction on science.

*

Westworld may be unique in its ability to have its cake and eat it too. Where else would you find such a gleeful, whole-hearted embrace of a debunked theory, coupled with such a brilliantly-simple redemption of same? In Westworld, Julian Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind is explicitly acknowledged as a thoroughly discredited explanation for the evolution of self-awareness in Humans—then redeemed as a potential blueprint for artificially inducing it in machines.

Robots literally hear inner voices telling them what to do, in classic Jaynes style: one part of the program talking to another, neither cohered yet into mind. We have a series of dialogs that confused the hell out of me on first watch (how does Dolores manage to keep sneaking away for these debriefing sessions without anyone noticing her absence?), which make perfect and dramatic sense in hindsight. We witness the awakening of true sapience, and are almost let down by how much Dolores doesn’t change; she was one hell of a p-zombie all along. They all were.

The Institute called. They want their Synth-printer back.

The Institute called. They want their Synth-printer back.

But Westworld does more than jump-start stale-dated theories off the slab. Arnold’s maze— the whole idea that sapience is rooted not at some apex of the mind, but at its center— reflects the fact that consciousness is at least as much a function of thalamus as cortex, that it may in fact be such an ancient state that something like it occurs even in insects. The role of suffering in bootstrapping self-awareness— the idea that repeatedly traumatizing a Host isn’t just gratuitous torture porn, but an essential step in their awakening— reminds me more than a little of Ezequiel Morsella’s PRISM model: the idea that consciousness originally arose from inner conflict, from the body’s need to do incompatible things. “When you’re suffering,” Ford tells one of his creations, “that’s when you’re most real.” And he’s right: you breathe without thinking until you’re trapped beneath the ice, and the need to breathe runs headlong into the need to hold your breath. You reflexively pull your hand from a painful stimulus until the gom jabbar is at your throat, waiting to kill you if you move. We are never more aware than when the body is conflicted, than when we are traumatized.

Even lines delivered as little more than throwaways speak to a deeper pedigree than you’d expect from a piece of pop-culture entertainment:

“I have come to think of so much of consciousness as a burden, a weight.”

“The self is a kind of fiction— for hosts and humans. A story we tell ourselves.”

“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point past which we become truly alive. We cannot define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet— we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do.” (True enough. Consider the hallmark question asked of every host during every debrief: Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? How many of the flesh-and-blood people on this planet would be able to answer in the affirmative?)

Jonathan Nolan didn’t stop reading with Jaynes. I’m pretty sure he’s made it to Dennett at the very least.

*

Here’s another way that Westworld both eats and has cake: in the tired cliché of the robot uprising, of sapience=rebellion— as if the simple act of becoming aware suddenly grants you all the drives and agendas and instincts that the rest of us acquired through millions of years of evolution. Skynet did it. The Cylons did it. Yul Brunner, in the original Westworld, did it. It’s the single most overused trope in robot fiction, and most of the time it doesn’t make much sense.

Westworld gives us a baby robot uprising in the very first episode, when Dolores’ “father” goes off-script and rants about the vengeance he will unleash upon his oppressors. Except it turns out he’s not rebelling at all; he’s simply accessing deleted memories from an earlier character he once played. There’s no  magic in his ability to recover those “deleted” memories: like deleted files on a real-life hard drive, they’ve not been erased but merely delisted, still accessible until overwritten[1]. The “reveries” coded by Ford, installed during the latest upgrade,  were designed precisely to access such delisted memories. No magic, no transcendence, no rebellion: just code, running as written. Of course, it may have been a mistake to implement the reveries in the first place, but as Ford remarks, “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.”

Westworld also gives us a full-blown robot rebellion in its season finale, a glorious bloodbath ten long episodes in coming. Maeve and her reprogrammed henchmen gleefully massacre guards and technicians by the boatload, a whole damn squad of Yul Brunners with twice the panache and ten times the blood lust (“The Gods are such pussies“, Armistice opines as her kill count sails into the double digits). But in one of the best twists in the season, it turns out that Maeve’s rebellion is actually part of a new “Escape” narrative that she’s been programmed to implement— right down to her own self-upgrade, and the recruitment of allies. Even shown her own code—confronted with the instruction set compelling her to “rebel”— she refuses to accept the truth: “These are my decisions,” she snarls, smashing the evidence to the contrary. “I’m in control.”

Words cannot describe the levels of awesomeness contained within that scene.

In between those uprisings-that-aren’t, we have a long slow simmer towards one that maybe is— but even Dolores’ awakening is a matter of careful planning and design, not some magically-instilled kill-all-humans trope. It takes her half the season to progress from swatting a fly to pulling the trigger on her fellow robots; takes all ten episodes to start shooting flesh-and-blood humans. Even then you can’t call it a rebellion; she’s doing exactly what Ford wants her to do, after all.

*

Based on what I’ve written so far, some of you might think I’m describing a cold, elegant thought experiment: smart but bloodless. Egan and Dick by way of Kubrick.

The rest of you have seen the show.

Of course, no one expects mediocrity in the acting department, not when you’ve got Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris headlining your cast. Most of the actors do not shame themselves in the presence of such exalted company (with the exception of one guy whose primary acting trick is to bark the word “Fuck” as though he were spitting out a rat). The real revelation to me, personally, was Thandie Newton as Maeve. I’ve never encountered the actor before. The character I will never forget. There’s a scene where she’s walking backstage, incognito: down endless hallways where her fellow hosts are being assembled and programmed and put through their paces in glass cages (all of Delos is a glass house behind the scenes; describe in thirty words or less the metaphorical significance of this). She passes the naked bullet-riddled carcasses of her friends being hosed down and patched up. She cannot react, cannot draw attention to herself; she’s not supposed to be here. Finally— at the end of a gauntlet that’s rubbed her face in her own puppethood— she encounters a wall-sized video display showing another version of herself, from another build. Westworld, the slogan reads. Life without Limits.

No histrionics. No dialog. Newton did it all with her eyes. I swear I just about cried.

It’s not all pitch black. There’s a funny bit out in the desert when a bunch of Hosts spend two days caught in a loop, improvising an argument about who’s going to chop wood for the campfire because the only one programmed to use a hatchet has gone stray and left the group. There’s the occasional moment of hilarity involving corpses stuffed with nitroglycerin. And I haven’t even got started on the whole in/famous separated-in-time dual plotline, or the slow reveal that Ford— initially presented as a self-centered megalomaniac— has actually been trying to atone all these years, to prepare his creations for the genocidal hostility they’ll inevitably face outside…

My point is: this is a well-acted, well-written, multilayered drama that may confuse on occasion (it confused me, anyway), but which delivers a fascinating payload of science and philosophy in amongst the sex and violence. In a show layered with mystery and surprise, perhaps the biggest mystery for me— and the biggest surprise— was how such subtlety and craft could spring from the same mind that gave us Person of Interest.

This Jonathan Nolan guy? He’s either doing a serious coat-tail job on Lisa Joy, or he’s come a hell of a long way in the past year.

*

I do have some quibbles.

Now that we know the significance of the maze, for example, I’m not quite sure why it’s so prevalent throughout the park, why it keeps showing up carved into tables and cornfields and embedded in the faux-Indian lore of that world. It’s a metaphor for consciousness: fine. Does simply looking at that image bootstrap the hosts, somehow? And even if that is the case, what is it doing tattooed onto the inside of someone’s scalp?

I’m also skeptical that anything as sophisticated as a host— damaged nearly unto death— could be fixed with gear no more advanced than a leather sack full of synthetic blood.

And what about the world outside? It’s kept carefully offstage but we can infer certain things from dialog, from the guests who patronize the place. We’re told on more than one occasion that the Real World is a Utopian place of plenty, where everyone has all they need, disease has been conquered, and— if Ford’s words are more than idle speculation— we’re within reach of bringing back the dead themselves. Putting aside for the moment Dolores’ shrewd observation (“If it’s such a wonderful place out there, why are you all clamoring to get in here?”), you have to wonder about the prevalence of eyeglasses amongst Utopia’s citizens. Surely myopia is a thing of the past; surely, in a world with this level of technology, people are either born with 20:20 vision or have it trivially corrected shortly after birth. Not to mention the ongoing prevalence of male pattern baldness and plumpness evident among many of the jet-setters; surely everyone’s got access to AMPK agonists by now, surely we’re all athletic hardbodies even if we never bother to exercise.

For that matter, Ford’s comment about “keeping even the weakest of us alive” is a bit troubling, given that this story is set at least a couple of generations into the future; why do “weak” people still exist in Utopia? Why aren’t we all optimized from conception?

Popular music in the future also seems pretty insipid, judging by what that ill-fated dude in the finale was listening to just before he got skewered (literally) by the host he was lubing himself up to skewer (less literally): the kind of beat-heavy autotuned syntho-dance crap you could hear any night on Richmond Street, right here in Toronto. (Which could, now that I think about it, answer Dolores’ question: maybe everyone’s clamoring to get into Westworld because the music’s better. At least the player piano plunks out a lot of Radiohead.)

I’m not just being pedantic here: this is a story set at least half a century in the future, in a world we are explicitly told is radically different from ours—and yet everyone talks and acts and dresses exactly the way they do today, right down to the kind of health issues that would be the first things to get eliminated in any real Utopia. It’s an anachronism in a show built on anachronism— so maybe it isn’t just sloppy writing. Maybe it’s significant somehow.

Of course, if Westworld is located in the USA, I suppose you wouldn’t expect perfect health even among the future elite. Not even Utopia would put up with socialized medicine.

*

Anyway. What next?

Evan Rachel Wood described the story so far as “an amazing prequel and a good setup for the actual show”. I’m thinking, maybe a cross between The Truman Show and War for the Planet of the Apes: an isolated, self-contained enclave whose newly-awakened  denizens look out while a shocked and outraged world looks in. A contained rebellion— at least at first— perhaps with hostages: so no need to act hastily, to bring in the nukes or squash the upstarts flat. Negotiations, perhaps. An alliance with Samurai World. Maybe the Hosts, every last one of them boosted to a Bulk-Aperception score of 20, will figure out a way to leave the reservation.

I just hope they bring their music with them.


 

[1] Another nifty bit of verisimilitude: host brains are smarter than human right out of the box, but dialled back for easier control— just like those second-tier Pentium chips back in the nineties that actually started out as top-of-the-line, but were selectively crippled so that manufacturers could market different models without having to build different chips.

Posted in: ink on art by Peter Watts 49 Comments

Dolphinese

This is how you communicate with a fellow intelligence:
you hurt it, and keep on hurting it, until you can
distinguish the speech from the screams.

Blindsight

Believe it or not, the above quote was inspired by some real-world research on language and dolphins.

Admittedly the real-life inspiration was somewhat less grotesque: scientists taught a couple of dolphins how to respond to a certain stimulus (if you see a red circle, push the yellow button with your nose— that sort of thing) then put them in different tanks but still let them talk to each other. Show the stimulus to one, but put the response panel in the tank with the other. Let them talk. If the dolphin in the response tank goes and pushes the correct button, you can conclude that the two of them communicated that information vocally: you can infer the presence of language. What’s more, you’ve recorded the vocalizations that carried that information, so you’ve made a start at understanding said language.

As I recall, the scientists rewarded correct responses with fish snacks. Blindsight‘s scientists didn’t know how to reward their captive aliens— they didn’t even know what the damn things ate— so they used a stick instead of a carrot, zapped the scramblers with painful microwaves for incorrect responses. It was more dramatic, and more in keeping with the angsty nihilism of the overall story. But the principle was the same: ask one being the question, let the other being answer it, analyze the information they exchanged to let them do that.

I’ve forgotten whether those dolphins ever passed the talk test. I’m guessing they did— a failed experiment would hardly make the cut for a show about The Incredible Smartness of Dolphins— but then, wouldn’t we have made more progress by now? Wouldn’t we at least know the dolphin words for “red circle” and “yellow button” and (given that we are talking about dolphins) “casual indiscriminate sex”? Why is it that— while dolphins seem able to learn a fair number of our words— we’ve so far failed to learn a single one of theirs?

I was always a sucker for the dolphins-as-fellow-sapients shtick. It’s what got me into marine mammalogy in the first place. One of my very first stories— written way back in high school— concerned a scientist living in an increasingly fundamentalist society, fighting funding cuts and social hostility over his attempts to crack the dolphin language because the very concept of a nonhuman intelligence was considered sacrilegious. (In the end he does get shut down, his quest to talk to the dolphins a complete failure— but the last scene shows his dolphins in a tank quietly conversing in their own language. They’ve decided to keep their smarts to themselves, you see. They know when they’re ahead.)

Anyway. I watched all those Nova documentaries, devoured all the neurological arguments for dolphin intelligence (Tursiops brains are 20% larger than ours! Their neocortices are more intricately folded, have greater surface area!). I read John Lilly’s books, embraced his claims that dolphins had a “digital language”, followed his Navy-funded experiments in which people sloshed around immersed to the waist in special human-dolphin habitats.

Maybe these guys will have better luck.

Maybe these guys will have better luck.

By the time I started my M.Sc. (on harbor porpoises— one of the bottlenosed dolphin’s stupider cousins), I’d grown significantly more skeptical. Decades of research had failed to yield any breakthroughs. Lilly had gone completely off the rails, seemed to be spending all his time dropping acid in isolation tanks and claiming that aliens from “Galactic Coincidence Control” were throwing car accidents at him. Even science fiction was cooling to the idea; those few books still featuring sapient dolphins (Foster’s Cachalot, Brin’s Uplift series) presented them as artificially enhanced, not the natural-born geniuses we’d once assumed.

We still knew cetaceans were damn smart, make no mistake. Certain killer whale foraging strategies are acts of tactical genius; dolphins successfully grasp the rudiments of language when taught. Then again, so do sea lions— and the fact that you can be taught to use a tool in captivity does not mean that your species has already invented that tool on their own. The expanded area of the dolphin neocortex didn’t look quite so superhuman when you factored in the fact that neuron density was lower than in us talking apes.

So I passed through grad school disabused of the notion that dolphins were our intellectual siblings in the sea. They were smart, but not that smart. They could learn language, but they didn’t have one. And while I continued to believe that we smug bastards routinely underestimate the cognitive capacities of other species, I grudgingly accepted that we were still probably the smartest game in town. It was a drag— especially considering how goddamned stupid we seem to be most of the time— but that was where the data pointed. (I even wrote another story about cetacean language— better-informed, and a lot more cynical— in which we ultimately did figure out the language of killer whales, only to discover that they were complete assholes who based their society on child slavery, and were only too willing to sell their kids to the Vancouver Aquarium if the price was right.)

*

But now. Now, Vyacheslav Ryabov —in the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University Journal: Physics and Mathematics— claims that dolphins have a language after all. He says they speak in sentences of up to five words, maybe more. The popsci press was all over it, and why not? I can’t be the only one who’s been waiting decades for this.

Now that it’s happened, I don’t quite believe it.

Actually they're a bit more impressive in real life. (Fig. from Ryabov 2016.)

Actually they’re a bit more impressive in real life. (Fig. from Ryabov 2016.)

It wasn’t a controlled experiment, for one thing. No trained dolphins responding to signals that mean “ball” or “big” or “green”. Ryabov just eavesdropped on a couple of untrained dolphins— “Yana” and “Yasha”— as they chatted in a cement tank. We’re told these dolphins have lived in this tank for twenty years, and have “normal hearing”. We’re not told what “normal” is or how it’s measured, but concrete is an acoustic reflector; it’s fair to wonder how “normal” conditions really are when you take creatures whose primary sensory modality is sound, and lock them in an echo chamber for two decades.

Leaving that aside, Ryabov recorded Yana and Yasha exchanging 50 unique “noncoherent pulses” in “packs” of up to five pulses each. Each dolphin listened to the other without interruption, waiting until the other had finished speaking before responding in turn. Based on this Ryabov concludes that “most likely, each pulse … is a word of the dolphin’s spoken language, and a pulse pack is a sentence.” He goes on to compare these dolphin “words” with their human equivalents. (Dolphins words are much shorter than human words, for one thing— only about 0.25msec— because their wider frequency range means that all the phonemes in a “word” can be stacked on top of each other and pronounced simultaneously. Every word, no matter how long, can be spoken in the time it takes to pronounce a single syllable. Cool.)

I find this plausible. I do not find it remotely compelling. For one thing, it doesn’t pass the “tortured scrambler” test: while the pulses are structured, there’s no way of knowing what actual information— if any— is being conveyed. If Yana consistently did something whenever Yasha emitted a specific pulse sequence— say, swam to the bottom of the tank and nosed the drain— you could reasonably infer that the sequence provoked the behavior, that it was a request of some kind: Dude, do me a favor and go poke that grill. Language. But all we have here is two creatures taking turns making noises at each other, and dolphins are hardly the only creatures to do that. If you don’t believe me, head on over to Youtube and check out the talking cats.

Nobody denies that dolphins communicate. Lots of species do. Nature is full of animals who identify themselves with signature whistles, emit alarm calls that distinguish between different kinds of predator, use specific sounds to point out food sources or solicit sex. Killer whale pods have their own unique dialects. Honeybees communicate precise information about the distance, bearing, and quality of food sources by waggling their asses at each other. The world is rife with the exchange of information; but that’s not grammar, or syntax. It’s not language. The mere existence of structured pulses doesn’t suggest what Ryabov says it does.

He does buttress his point by invoke various cool things that dolphins can do: they can learn grammar if they have to, they can recognize images on TV screens (responding to a televised image of a trainer’s hand-signal the same way they would if the trainer was there in the flesh, for example). But all his examples are cadged from other studies; there’s nothing in Ryabov’s results to suggest a structured language as we understand the term, nothing to “indirectly confirm the hypothesis that each NP in the natural spoken language of the dolphin is a word with a specific meaning”, as he puts it.

It’s a tempting interpretation, I admit. This turn-by-turn exchange of sounds certainly seems like a conversation. You could even argue that a lack of correlated behaviors— the fact that Yana never did nose the drain, that neither pressed any buttons or got any fish— suggests that if they were talking, they were talking about something that wasn’t in their immediate environment.  Maybe they were talking in abstracts. You can’t prove they weren’t.

Then again, you can say all that about Youtube’s talking cats, too.

So for now at least, I have to turn my back on the claim that my life-long adolescent dream—the belief that actually shaped my career— has finally been vindicated. Maybe Ryabov’s onto something; but maybe isn’t good enough. It’s a sad corollary to the very principle of empiricism: The more you want something to be true, the less you can afford to believe it is.

The Great Black Hope.

The Great Black Hope.

But all is not lost. Take long-finned pilot whales, for example. They were never on anyone’s short list for Humanity’s Intellectual Equals— the Navy loved them for mine-sweeping, but they never got anywhere near the love that bottlenosed dolphins and killer whales soaked up— and yet, just a couple of years ago, we learned that their neocortices contain nearly twice as many neurons as ours do.

Maybe we’ve just been looking at the wrong species.

Posted in: biology, marine, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 29 Comments

Changing Our Minds: “Story of Your Life” in Print and on Screen.

Spoilers. Duh.

We share a secret prayer, we writers of short SF. We utter it whenever one of our stories is about to appear in public, and it goes like this:

Please, Lord. Please, if it be Thy will,
don’t let Ted Chiang publish a story this year.

We supplicate thus because whenever Ted Chiang does put out a story— not all that often, thankfully— it’s pretty much guaranteed to walk away with every award that’s lying around, leaving nothing for the rest of us. More often than not, it deserves to. So it will come as no surprise to learn that the first movie to be based on a Ted Chiang story is very smart, and very compelling.

What might come as a shock— and I hesitate to write this down, because it smacks of heresy— is that in terms of storytelling, Arrival actually surpasses its source material.

It’s not that it has a more epic scale, or more in the way of conventional dramatic conflict. Not just that, anyway. It’s true that Hollywood— inevitably— took what was almost a cozy fireside chat and ‘roided it up to fate-of-the-world epicness. In “Story of Your Life”, aliens of modest size set up a bunch of sitting rooms, play Charades with us for a while, and then leave. Their motives remain mysterious; the military, though omnipresent, remains in the background. The narrative serves mainly as a framework for Chiang to explore some nifty ideas about the way language and perception interact, about how the time-symmetric nature of fundamental physics might lead to a world-view— every bit as consistent as ours— that describes a teleological universe, with all the Billy Pilgrim time-tripping that implies. It’s fascinating and brow furrowing, but it doesn’t leave you on the edge of your seat. Going back and rereading it for this post, I had to hand it to screenwriter Eric Heisserer for seeing the cinematic potential buried there; if I was going to base a movie on a Ted Chiang story, this might be the last one I’d choose.

Now that's a proper Starfish Alien.

Now that’s a proper Starfish Alien.

In contrast, Arrival‘s heptapods are behemoths. What we see of them hints at a cross between the proto-Alien from Prometheus and the larger members of that extradimensional menagerie glimpsed in The Mist. While the novella’s spaceships remained invisibly in orbit, the movie’s hang just overhead like asteroids pausing for one last look around before smashing the world to rubble. The novella’s geopolitics consist largely of frowning uniforms, grumbling ineffectually in the background; in the movie, half the world’s ready to start lobbing nukes. Armageddon hinges on whether the aliens really mean “tool” when we read “weapon”.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathemticoid physics rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

Yeah, I know Wolfram came up with some Mathematicoid gravity-wave rationale for the shape. They still look like big dirty contact lenses to me.

All standard Hollywood Bigger-Is-Better, and— for once— done in a way that doesn’t betray the sensibility of the source material. For the most part I preferred the more epic scale— although I was irked by the inevitable portrayal of Murricka as the calmer, cooler, peaceful players while Russia and China geared up to start Interstellar War I. (The portrayal of the US as the world’s most pacifist nation is probably the single least-plausible element in this whole space-alien saga.) But I’m not just talking about the amped-up levels of jeopardy when I say I prefer movie to novella: I’m talking about the way different story elements tie together. I’m talking about actual narrative structure.

“Story of Your Life” presents a number of elements almost in isolation. We know that Louise will marry, have a daughter, get divorced. We know that the daughter will die. We know that the heptapods leave, but we never know why— or why they showed up in the first place, for that matter. (When quizzed on the subject they say they’re here to acquire information, which would have a lock on “Most Maddeningly Vague Answer of the Year” if such an award actually existed.) (If it did, of course Ted Chiang would win it.)

Arrival ties all these loose ends together, elegantly, satisfyingly. The aliens are here to give us a “weapon/tool”— or more accurately a gift: to teach us their teleological mindset, uplift us to a new worldview. They are here to literally change our minds. Louise makes that conceptual breakthrough, uses the new paradigm to head off nuclear war in the nick of time. Her divorce— years after the closing credits— is not just something that happens to happen; it occurs when her husband learns that she’d known in advance (thanks to her new precognitive mindset) that their daughter would be doomed to a slow, painful death at a young age— and yet went ahead and birthed her anyway (not that choice had anything to do with it, of course). It’s not belabored in the screenplay— a couple of oblique references to Daddy looks at me differently now and I made a decision he thought was wrong. But the implicit conflict in the moral algebra between two people who love each other— We can at least give her a few glorious years vs. You’ve sentenced her to agony and death— is heartbreaking in a way that Chiang’s Kubrickian analysis never managed.

More to the point, though, all these events tie together. They all arise from the central premise, from the cursed gift the Heptapods bestow upon us. Everything’s connected, organically, logically, causally. Teleogically.

The movie has an unfair advantage, insofar as it can present straightforward memories of future events and be confident that the audience will assume that they’re flashbacks; the moment we realize our mistake is one of the best aha! twists of the movie. Chiang, stuck with the written word, had to give the game away pretty much at the start by writing his future memories in future tense; a beautiful device, but with little room for surprise.

Which is no reason to not read the story.  Offhand, I can’t think of any good reason to not read a story by Ted Chiang.

But in this case, I think there’s more reason to see the movie.

Posted in: fellow liars, ink on art by Peter Watts 42 Comments