Mind Hives Remastered

So.  The 2013 Aurora Ballot came out a few days ago. Once again, I hadn’t been paying much attention because I didn’t actually publish anything last year.  Once again, I got a phone call telling me that whatever I talked about at last fall’s SpecFic Colloquium got me onto the ballot anyway, under “Best Fan — Other”.

Never mind the graphic— some doofus hotlinked the image that was originally here as his user pic rather than just making his own copy, and I got tired of seeing all those parasitic hits contaminating my stats.

Hell, I’ll take it.

Of course, the problem now is that the Ballroom at the Gladstone Hotel only held about a hundred attendees; Canadian SF fandom must number almost twice that many.  So the question is how to let those other folks in on what they’d be voting for (or against).  It turns out that videos were made of all the talks that day, but as luck would have it all the slides I presented during “Hive Minds, Mind Hives” ended up out-of-frame and the audio track was unintelligible to boot. (We will pause a moment here for the inevitable wisecracks about whether that word is more properly applied to the recording or the speaker.)  Helen Marshall— a ChiZine stalwart, and nominated herself in no less than three categories— was willing to upload that file regardless, but all you’d have seen would have been some gangly middle-aged dude gesticulating wildly while speaking in tongues, being interrupted occasionally by (what I’m pretty sure was) appreciative laughter.

So what I’ve done is re-record the talk, based on my original notes and what I can remember of the off-script bits. I laid that down behind a PowerPoint of the slides themselves, converted the whole thing to a variety of formats, and uploaded it to YouTube.  You can watch it right here:

It lacks the ambiance and spontaneity of a live performance, but at least you can both see and hear what I’m talking about. Be warned: it’s 40 minutes long. The cautious and/or busy among you might want to first check out the brief excerpt I posted leading up to the event itself, just to see if it’s really up your alley. I’ll also be posting a link to an archived file over on the backlist page sometime over the next few days, and of course some version of this thing will show up in the official Aurora voting packet.

But you saw it here first. (In more ways than one; since I gave the talk last fall I’ve recycled some of its ideas on this very ‘crawl.)

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 30th, 2013 at 6:05 pm and is filed under economics, just putting it out there..., neuro, public interface, sentience/cognition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

17 Responses to “Mind Hives Remastered”

  1. Sheila

    My spouse is an programmer av geek who records conferences. please oh please ask him to record czp events. He will make the audio intelligible. He asks me how much he should charge people sometimes, and I will say things like, “pycon.ca! squee! record them for as little as possible!” (depending on our savings, that is.)

    alternatively, ask him for advice on the bar minimum someone can do at a small event to make the recording come out okay.

    Also, for the vids from the event with unintelligible sound, maybe they could find volunteers to create a transcript or caption file. There’s software to help people do that, an a webapp that I’ve played with for it, universal subtitles. Now called Amara.

    Granted, captioning videos is hard. I’ve only managed to get through 15 minutes of a talk, and couldn’t stand it. People who do captioning professional can get this done much faster. This is fascinating stuff. I’ve seen a couple of talks about it by Mirabai Knight using plover during her talk.

  2. Sheila

    whelp, I finally had time to watch your talk. It would have been fun to attend. Did you have any time for Q&A afterwards? Any good interactions?

    Want to read Echopraxia! Based on your talk you are going to have some fun big ideas with networks of humans running around doing intelligent but not conscious swarming activity or something. or maybe even conscious. who knows! we have to wait for the book! Arg! how can they swarm! do you give them better peripheral vision? birds! you make birds echopraxic and they flock even better! bats! because it is a pun! you use different sensorums in humans and it is weird shit!

    please help squash this babbling with new fiblets?

    Ps. on second thought, maybe birds would flock even worse.

  3. Ben

    This is amazing.

    I find it funny that the collective intelligence of the 200+ Canadian SF fans present couldn’t manage to capture your original talk, given that they probably had the hardware to do it many times over in their pockets.

    I just read a superficial Wired puff piece on Singularity University, and the most insightful part was that one of the luminaries they followed around couldn’t work his projector. He even had a cute tagline: “AI is easy, AV is hard”. I think adding more brains to the network willy-nilly can actually produce a less-functional entity than an isolated brain. The Chinese engineer who designed the projector’s interface, plus the dozens of workers who assembled it, plus the big name Singularity U lecturer, add up to less than one brain that’s ready to come out with a concise verbal explanation untrammeled by audiovisual aids.

  4. Sheila

    Re split brains, network latencies…

    Found this post about a man born without an optic chiasm.

    The Man With Uncrossed Eyes. (closed access article)

    Really curious about how he experiences the world and how this would affect cognition and visual processing.

  5. Razvan-Mihai Dudu

    Nice and spirited scientific approach to consciousness.
    As proof-of-concept, the “wireless echopraxic network” (sic!) is a funny thought experiment (as it was the infamous Scroedinger’s cat). Even so, the connection with the 2010 stock market “mini-crash” makes it pretty scary. What gives me a little peace of mind is the fact that we, humans, are very efficient (and proficient) at killing whatever stands in our way, even if our way leads to an abrupt clif…
    The actual Hive of Minds is over-rated in my opinion, given the average level of education of the most meat-brains involved and taking into account that over 60% of the (human) population doesn’t have “Internet” access…
    @Ben: You are proving one of Peter’s assumptions: bandwidth _is_ relevant… and in this case the bandwidth is puny.

  6. Peter D

    The thing I found most interesting was the guy who had half his brain put to sleep, and turned into an extrovert.

    I mean, just, intuitively, I think most people’d think that if an introvert and an extrovert were forced into one consciousness, either the person would wind up being somewhere on the middle of the spectrum, or the extrovert would dominate, just like an extrovert would dominate the conversation if they were stuck in a room together talking. I wonder what the other half of his brain would be all alone, would it be an extreme introvert? Or a regular introvert, pretty much the same as his normal personality? Or, weirdest and potentially most interesting of all, ALSO an extrovert, and it’s only the gestalt that becomes introverted. Maybe all us introverts secretly have two warring extroverts struggling to get out the hive mind we were forced into. 😉

    Or is it dominated by issues completely unrelated: maybe whichever personality happens to have the most neurons (of one particular type, or maybe biggest version of one particular brain structure that exists in each hemisphere) “wins” the personality contest when they merge.

  7. Alek

    Hi Peter,
    There is a very interesting paper about split-brain patients and the unity of consciousness that might interest you in the context of this video:

    It presents evidence questioning the assumption that split-brain patients have many separate, independent and constantly active consciousnesses. Something contrary appears to be true: their consciousness rises from the coalition of neurons that is switching between either one, or the other hemisphere. The switching is governed by the thalamus and is dependent on the process of attention. The content of consciousness rises form the information available to brain structures that have been integrated by the coalition – hence the differences between the personalities active at given time.
    Note that this finding fits perfectly with the integrated information theory (Baars) / dynamic core hypothesis (Tononi).

    As a side note – Gulio Tononi, the author of “panpsychic bullshit” theory you mention in the video, is also one of the major contributors to the research showing a link between consciousness and integration between cortical structures you list some few minutes later:)

  8. Matt Kane

    I understand why system latency can divide conscious minds, but why is one computational system not conscious just because it runs more slowly?

    For example–why isn’t the planet sized ping pong ball + tube brain conscious, just because it runs at a slower clock speed than the same information system printed on silicon or in neurons? Especially if its environment operates at the same timescale as billions of ping pong balls dropping through vacuum tubes in perfect sync? It seems you’re saying that overall speed isn’t the issue–latency is–so no matter how slow the system is, as long as the neurons can synchronize sensation and feedback, they can act as one.

    Pardon the dorm room philosophy, but without a society/network to tell us who we are at every step of the way, doesn’t our “identity” just slough off–making us nodes in a very high latency, inefficient hive mind? There’s certainly a subjective difference for us, but is there a functional difference? One very well might send a digital photo in a series of 1’s and 0’s in Morse code… except there’s no mind that can perceive it… did I just answer my own question?

    I’m imagining trillions of Morse code operators with log books billions of pages long doing all the operations that happen in the modern internet for some thousands of years, performing the exact same operations as, say, me posting a photograph to a forum with the click of a button. What’s the difference, except that the former exchange of information is absurdly inefficient?

    Anyways, I’ll be watching this more than once. Thanks for making it available to the mind hive.

  9. Alexey

    Peter, why do you assume that the reason split-brain patients develop multiple personalities is that the signal takes longer to travel? Wouldn’t the alternate route be used for different kinds signals altogether? Then cutting the corpus callossum would stop the signals necessary for forming a cohesive personality, not simply delay them.

  10. JPTS

    This is fascinating! If I had read about these things 10 years ago, I would have become a neurocientist.

    Imagine if the man without the optic chiasm had split brain. Maybe he could close one eye at a time and play a game (like battleship or cards, for example)against himself. Crazy. Maybe even split brains with an optic chiasm can do that.

  11. Mr Non-Entity

    Peter, that was an exceptionally thought-provoking presentation, and if I have any bones to pick, it would be all about the really large number of deeply thought-provoking notions in there. As you note, there’s also the rhetorical technique that you employ, intentionally or not, of tending to conclude each section of factual or nearly-factual presentation with a question, and then answering the question with another question. And as the questions add up, they all come together as a summary statement. Rhetorically this is a quite convincing ploy but very interesting questions about well-researched phenomena don’t necessarily add up to any sort of conclusion at all. I’m not denying anything that you say, mind you, and in fact I agree with a great deal of it. I’m just being pedantic in pointing out that the rhetorical method could be considered by other pedantic folks as being less than sound science. That being said, “fucking awesome, dude!”

    But working backward, I note that in your conclusion you seemed to gloss right over something of which you’d made a point earlier-on. That would be where you’re suggesting that once the bottleneck of 60WPM typing was passed by the widespread adoption of more direct man-machine interface methods reaching the internet, a global consciousness would likely follow, working at blinding speed that would be unsurpassable etc etc. That might be true but please let me temper your exuberance by reminding you that while the 13 milliseconds latency between NYC and Chicago might seem inconsequential, it’s about as small as it can get, lightspeed limiting packet flow even if there were routers that had no queue time whatsoever. Global Webtrance — as the early-on internet personality Shuman used to call it — is far less do-able than you might think, unless we can get quantum-effect routers that can eliminate the lag time from the intercontinental routing satellite ground-stations up to geosync and back down to ground. It’s far faster than habitrail and ping-pong balls, but far away from the communications speed between the large number of cores in a supercomputer. Don Becker (of “beowulf” distributed linux computing fame) has a variety of papers still floating around the WWW on the matter of latency handling and problems even between very closely co-located servers even with very good ethernet cards. All of this is from nearly 15 years ago, and even as bandwidth and bitrates have increased by orders of magnitude since then, there’s still the lightspeed limitation.

    All of that isn’t to say that you might not see a whole lot of “pods” of maybe a dozen or so people walking around sharing mindspace via Bluetooth or WiFi, where the reception distance limitations really shave off a lot of the global-scale limitations due to “c”. Close-coupled by scant distance, so to speak. Those Pod People (heh, could be on to something) might do a lot of inter-pod communication of vast amounts of data and interpretational methodologies (call it “apps” like flash for video, or schema for databases) via global internet, but probably it couldn’t be used for “consciousness” unless you didn’t mind it being far slower than the consciousness of a singleton human… though doubtless that immense and slow global construct might be expected to have far larger and “fractally rich” thoughts than the singleton. Just my humble opinion, really.

    Additionally, let me hark farther back to the musings on echopraxia… I gather that you neither studied music nor had military service or comparable training involving close-order drill. Or you may have studied music, but probably one of the wind instruments rather than piano or bowed strings. In piano, they have a rather interesting approach. Part of the training is to develop something akin to a software severance of the corpus callosum; the right hand is literally supposed to be unaware of what the left hand is doing, and vice-versa, other than via the medium of both ears hearing their combined efforts.

    Comparably, certain martial arts are intended to create a sort of dedicated center for each of the joints of each of the limbs, the hips, shoulders, spine, atlas and axis in the neck etc etc. Training itself is meant to impart “muscle memory”, whatever the hell that is, and I suggest that the brain internally develops a sort of Labanotation in which it sends a pretty compact choreographic syllable from the integration centers to the muscle-memory (again, whatever the hell that is) centers which interpret the syllable and then launch some cascades down the relevant neurons to evoke rather complex motions. Probably all of this evolved from or along with the complex systems required for brachiation back when our ancestors still did that. Seriously, in complex fighting systems, same as with brachiation, you really don’t want to be doing those based on conscious decision-making at the moment. You want flow to come out from somewhere within your Deepest Inner Monkey.

    Mirror neurons are probably seen operating closest to echopraxia, in “non pathological normal people”, during military training or other close-order drill such as in cheerleading or group exercises. Indeed, to get everyone to march in step, something close to echopraxia has to be intentionally invoked/evoked. Otherwise, you have a bunch of under-dressed young folks chanting “ra ra ra” and beating each other with their pom-poms while falling down all over each other. There’s probably some interesting rumination, if not actual science, to be found pondering the possible inter-relationship between human learning abilities and the mirror-neuron systems that might work well enough with others to allow your team to limp away from the battlefield and reproduce, while the other team doesn’t.

    It is even more thought-provoking to me to discover that my guts are possibly as smart as a housecat and that might explain a few things, such as the cravings of pregnant women for the most unlikely things, and an appalling regularity that almost inevitably made me late for the bus that I rode to an incredibly annoying and generally waste-of-time job. 😉 But this leads me to wonder: you talk about “the Evil Hand”, and I must muse about whether or not the various “muscle memory” (centers resulting from a lifetime of tai-chi type exercises) have their own rather limited consciousness… and maybe get to talking amongst themselves now and then. As long as they don’t go stealing my mail, I guess it’s all well that ends well.


  12. Whoever

    Finally got to watch the whole thing. It kept dropping out 7 minutes in even via WiFi. Speaking of which, reminder for the Shorts page download link.

    Two immediate reactions.

    Re: leech nervous system, don’t know why this didn’t occur to me before.

    What would we do under similar circumstances? Yes, there would be panic, but there would also be: “I’m numb. Need to move away from what is causing numbness.” Obviously a nervous system alone is not likely thinking those words, much less a leech’s, but that is the sensation, isn’t it? A lack of one. “Must be in some dark, numbing goo. Swim, crawl, squirm away.”

    Re: losing “self” in the hive mind

    The other is similar. While I suppose losing one’s personality, having been absorbed by the whole and made a part of a larger one might not allow for purposeful separation, there still might be that “Wait, I just died” sensation going on somewhere, right?


    Also, don’t know if that was part of the idea, but I tend to think self-flogging monastic types would adapt to it easy enough if told to. Mea culpa, we-uh culpa, wouldn’t you like to be a culpa, too?

  13. Mr Non-Entity

    @Whoever: good reminder! and pretty good interpretation although I don’t know how much we should anthropomorphize a disembodied leech nervous system.

    Probably it’s more a case of a nervous system sending out pretty random nerve impulses trying to establish any kind of two-way communication or feedback system. I suspect that if the leech was ever connected, at first the nervous system would be trying all of the things that used to work, not exactly random. As time went on, I expect the originally fairly structured impulses would become more akin to thrashing or random flailing, comparable perhaps to attempts to reconnect along new/repaired nerves after serious damage such as amputation. That the whole body has been amputated and can never reconnect is of no matter, the basic system would still “continue to act hopefully” in seeking any new system approximating “healing”, establishing any sort of feedback system.


  14. Peter Watts

    Sheila: Did you have any time for Q&A afterwards? Any good interactions? … please help squash this babbling with new fiblets?

    No Q&A. I try to time my talks to last right up to the wire, so that there won’t be any time for questions. As long as I just stand up there and declaim, you might almost think I know what I’m talking about; it’s only when I have to fend of questions that it all comes crashing down.

    And given how busy I am finishing off this stupid novel fiblets is pretty much
    all you’re gonna get from me for the next month or so.

    Alek: There is a very interesting paper about split-brain patients and the unity of consciousness that might interest you in the context of this video:

    Alek, thank you. This looks new and right on point. I look forward to reading it once I’ve finished writing this stupid, stupid book.

    Matt Kane: I understand why system latency can divide conscious minds, but why is one computational system not conscious just because it runs more slowly?

    For example–why isn’t the planet sized ping pong ball + tube brain conscious, just because it runs at a slower clock speed than the same information system printed on silicon or in neurons? Especially if its environment operates at the same timescale as billions of ping pong balls dropping through vacuum tubes in perfect sync?

    It’s not the slowness per se that’s the issue — it’s that that slowness makes it impossible for signals to cross the distances involved fast enough to ensure synchrony. Your example of ping-pong balls dropping through vacuum tubes in sync doesn’t work for me because there’s no communication between the different parts; they’d be moving in parallel, whereas the neural signatures we’ve correlated with the conscious state involve a two-way conversation, a call-and-response.

    In that light, my use of “synchrony” was ill-advised. I didn’t mean that two parts of the brain were doing the same thing at the same time, I meant to say that the two parts of the brain were talking back and forth extremely rapidly; their actions are in sync in the sense that each responds perfectly to the other’s call.

    Alexey: Peter, why do you assume that the reason split-brain patients develop multiple personalities is that the signal takes longer to travel? Wouldn’t the alternate route be used for different kinds signals altogether?

    Normally, yeah; but neurons are a plastic porridge, and they can be press-ganged into roles they’d never play in an intact brain (for example, you can learn to “see” with the tactile centers connected to your tongue).

    I’m not actually assuming that the multiple personae arise because the signals take longer; I’m assuming it happens because the signals take too long for the necessary call-and-response to take place within the millisecond window. If the signal is severed entirely or merely slowed below a certain latency, the result would still be fragmentation of the self.

    In either case though, it is basically an assumption on my part.

    Mr Non-Entity: Peter, that was an exceptionally thought-provoking presentation, and if I have any bones to pick, it …

    Dude, I don’t have nearly enough time right now to respond to that whole comment in its entirety. But I am reading it, and considering it. Thanks.

  15. Nestor

    This is fascinating and thought provoking stuff, though I remain unconvinced that these multiple consciousnesses really exist based on the evidence. Being outgoing or religious when part of the brain responsible for suppressing those impulses is disconnected doesn’t imply a new personality anymore than being uncharateristically sociable while drunk does.

  16. Mr Non-Entity

    @Peter Watts: No need really to respond, the main body of it is about how latency just from lightspeed would tend to put a fairly small upper limit on the size of hive minds. Vinge covers this very well, as he’s coming from the foundations of networking-land, in his “Zones of Thought” books (A Fire Upon the Deep, etc), with his intelligent packs, the “Tines”. They are a land-dwelling dog-like life form possibly derived from sea mammals, and have constant ultrasound communication between individuals in the packs, and packs of a few individuals form each “person”. A single member isn’t very bright by human standards, the optimum pack size is about 3 to 5 individuals, and they all have to remain within a certain distance or the pack will lose coherence as an intelligent person. Too many members and they can’t be coherent much either, and become “a choir”. Vinge covers all of the permutations pretty well, including rather odd but interesting variations such as the Line (quite dim as a person but good at passing messages quickly), the Ring (same as the Line but meant for defense-in-depth) etc etc. Next time you have a week or three to spare, A Fire Upon the Deep is a fine way to pass many hours.


  17. Whoever

    @Mr. Nonentity:

    Thanks for saying what I think I was trying to re: the leech nervous system. Was going more for easy consumption, maybe poetic than attempting to equate humans with leeches (at least in this context).

    Hm. Maybe that’s a possible or partial definition of life. That which reacts to being made uncomfortable.


    By the way, that animated gif or clip of Sellars as Strangelove was hysterical for some reason, more than I recall from watching the original film. I think they could have done with you or your source as editor. Sometimes faster is funnier.

    And on the topic of best examples, I nominate Gollum to replace whatshername, Sybil, as bestknown MPD. Is it due to latency and the Ring filling up some of the creature’s synaptic centers? (Yeah, just watched The Hobbit part one last night).