Friday, April 27, 2007

Blindsight (the malady, not the book): better than the other kind?

Now here's a fascinating study: turns out that victims of blindsight can see better than so-called "healthy" individuals. At least, one fellow with a patchy version of the condition was able to detect subtler visual cues in his blind field than in his sighted one. (Here's the original paper: here's a summary.) This suggests that certain "primitive" traits in our neurological evolution didn't so much disappear as get ground beneath the boots of more recent circuitry, and that — once released from those Johnny-come-lately overlays — they come off the leash. And primitive or not, they're better than what came after.

Or in other words, once again, the reptile brain could really shine if the pointy-haired homunculus would just get the hell out of the way.

I wrote a story back in the nineties with a similar punchline — that the hindbrain was still alive in its own right, still potentially autonomous, and that only after the neocortex had died was it able to wake up, look around, and scream in those last brief moments before it too expired. But now I'm thinking I didn't go far enough — because after all, who's to say the reptile brain has to die when the upper brain does? I mean sure, we've got the Terry Schiavos and the other fleshy rutabagas of the world, clusters of organs and bed sores on life support. But we've also got the schizophrenics, who hear voices and won't meet our eyes and whose frontal lobes are smaller than most would consider normal. And most frighteningly of all, we've got these other folks, people with heads full of fluid, mid- and hindbrains intact, cerebra reduced to paper-thin layers of neurons lining the insides of empty skulls — wandering through life as engineers and schoolteachers, utterly unaware of anything at all out of the ordinary until that fateful day when some unrelated complaint sends them into an MRI machine and their white-faced doctors say, Er, well, the good news is it can't be a brain tumor because...

There's a range, in other words. You don't need anywhere near a complete brain to function in modern society (in fact, there are many obvious cases in which having a complete brain seems to be an actual disadvantage). And in a basic survival sense, the ability to write and appreciate the music of Jethro Tull and do other "civilised" things aren't really that important anyway.

So now I'm thinking, tewwowist virus: something engineered to take out higher brain functions while leaving the primitive stuff intact. Something that eats away at your cognitive faculties and lets your inner reptile off the leash, something that strips your topheavy mind down to its essentials, something that speeds your reflexes and cranks your vision even as it takes the light from your eyes.

I'm thinking zombies. Not the shuffling Romero undead or the sentient philosopher's metaphor, not even the drug-addled brain-damaged pseudoresurrectees of the real-world Caribbean. I'm thinking something faster and more rigorous and more heartbreaking, far more dangerous and far tougher to kill, and I'm thinking hey, if I can do it for vampires...

I'm also thinking of writing another book.

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39 Comments:

Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 27, 2007 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

I'm also thinking of writing another book.

Yay! Me likey Watts books!

I'm sure you would have a much better take on the subject matter though.

Seconded. I'm also hoping that any cliched "hurrr soldiers can be idiots with good reflexes" misidentifications of career skills can be avoided. There are other examples of such thinking in the popular pap world, but I don't think I want to list them here. I haven't yet read Blindsight (insert abuse here), but from the reviews I think I can safely assume any Watts Speed-Zombie story will be good and treat the subject in interesting and intellecually-stimulating ways. [/fanboy]

April 27, 2007 at 3:01 PM  
Blogger Sunday said...

It's actually worth listening to the commentary on the 28 Days Later DVD, because the writers discuss some of their rationale behind the speed zombie. I appreciate that they tried to adhere to a few rules as often as they could, such as that the zombies are almost never prone to attack unless they've heard human speech first.

They also stress that hatred is the motivating factor for the zombies, a marked deviation from history's zombie movie. There are points during the movie where the zombies sound also as though they are speaking clearly -- the most distinct one is the male child that the main character encounters when the are stopping for gas: he clearly says "I hate you!" above the snarling and screeching.

April 27, 2007 at 4:31 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 27, 2007 at 5:48 PM  
Anonymous David Ellis said...

I've always had a strange fondness for zombie stories.....and frequently wondered what motivates it.

A Watts version of zombies would certainly be something I'd love to read.

By the way, anybody read Stephen King's CELL?

April 27, 2007 at 7:23 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

I have not read Cell (I drifted away from King after the mid-nineties), but I've heard good things about it.

Re: derivative zombies. Yeah, I saw 28 Days Later (the version with two incompatible endings spliced inelegantly on to another), and I liked it. Haven't rented the DVD; not sure I want to hear the director's commentary, because it might be too informative. (See William Gibson run screaming from the theatre 20 minutes into Blade Runner, Neuromancer only half-written. See also that old eighties OS Card story about the musical prodigy in the woods, forbidden to hear the works of other composers for fear of contamination.)

I got this theory, though, to help me decide if an idea is going to be fresh or derivative, and oddly enough it has nothing to do with the idea's content. Rather, it has to do with the way it was derived. If I come out of "28 Days Later" thinking Wow, fast zombies! Gotta write me a story about them!, I suspect the resulting sf will be about as original as, say, Margaret Atwood's. On the other hand, supposing I start from a completely different place — Hey, lookee here, blindsight is better than sightsight, and that means the hind brain could still be ticking, and that means... holy shit, that means you could have a perfectly functional humanoid without any upper brain structures at all... — in that case I bet the result would be more innovative, because it emerged spontaneously from the background data, and its behavior is therefore going to be a function of that data, not of the pre-existing cliché. It's thus likely to diverge from expectations in pretty interesting ways.

It's kinda like the convergent evolution of wings in insect vs. tetrapods. Dragonflies and birds both fly. The structures even look superficially similar. But they're different; they came from different places, and when the chips are down, only one of them can turn from wings to flippers if you decide to become a penguin.

So that's what I'm looking at. Penguin zombies. And I'm hoping my theory is right, because otherwise this particular aspect of Dumbspeech is gonna stink like yesterday's White House press briefing.

April 27, 2007 at 8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still haven't found my logon, but anything that gets you writing again is good.

No....wait...the other thing. BAD!

No brained zombies who are better than full-brained human beings? That would scare most people. I'm not most people. Zombies are nothing more than drunks. They can't organize or use tools. An alert police department could put them down, let alone the mobilized might of a national military.

However... you are wicked scary. You might have a way around that problem. In fact you probably do or you would have abandoned the topic by now. That means I should be afraid and barricading my home against zombie onslaught. - El Grande.

April 28, 2007 at 4:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm thinking something faster and more rigorous and more heartbreaking, far more dangerous and far tougher to kill, and I'm thinking hey, if I can do it for vampires...

Well, there'll be no sneaking past these guys with your arms stretched out and a vacant look in your eye, that's for sure.

I'm also thinking of writing another book.

Shit yeah.

*is immensely pleased*

- anonypost by razorsmile (taking a stand against the google/blogger hegemony since 2007)

April 29, 2007 at 1:23 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Nice concept, I'd read it. Plus there isn't enough Watts lining my bookshelf.

I wonder exactly what would be left with the 'person' stripped away, and the reptile brain all that's left. If it would be fast, but stupid in some ways that could be taken advantage of. Right now reptile passes messages up to the conscious in control person. What if instead of disabling all the top level stuff, it simply switches which one is in control. The reptile being in charge, whilst the old conscious brain is still there, passing messages to it, just like the reverse happens now.

April 29, 2007 at 8:12 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

"What if instead of disabling all the top level stuff, it simply switches which one is in control. The reptile being in charge, whilst the old conscious brain is still there, passing messages to it, just like the reverse happens now."

Dude, I'm pretty sure that's the way things already work. Everything from post-copulatory cuddle times to differential infanticide rates suggest that we behave pretty much the same way spiders and sticklebacks do-- we don't so much control the brain stem as come up with fancy excuses for letting it control us. (I suspect, bye the bye, that this is the basic mechanism underlying the phenomenon of "truthiness".)

However, from a pure skiffy storytelling perspective, that's actually a pretty cool idea. One can imagine a kind of reversible circuit implanted in the heads of special-ops field types, allowing them to go from cognitive to pure reflex modes depending on the situation. You could essentially become a fast zombie temporarily, to get out of a tight spot. And of course there would be countermeasures, since some would inevitably try to hack that switch. Which brings up the whole question of whether secrecy or publicity results in the best firewalls...

Anyone for Open-source zombies?

April 29, 2007 at 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Evelyn said...

Yeah for writing another book!

http://scienceblogs.com/developingintelligence/2007/04/defining_consciousness_17_prop.php
17 criteria for consciousness.

I have no comment about your story ideas, your ideas are much better than mine.

Love!

April 29, 2007 at 12:47 PM  
Blogger Apocalypso said...

As the late, great, Finster Mushwell used to opine, "What the world needs now are some great zombie turtles who can paint -- but quickly. . .zombie turtles with noodley goodness."

April 29, 2007 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 29, 2007 at 3:34 PM  
Blogger Trey said...

Interesting.
Good to hear you're pondering a new book. I hope you consider Pyr since they seem to be willing to take more risks.

So, zimboes anyone?

April 29, 2007 at 4:40 PM  
Blogger Brett D said...

A couple of random observations.

I remember reading an interview with Joe Haldeman years ago (which I do not have any hope of finding again) in which he described an experience being evacuated by helicopter. He was hanging on by his fingertips, certain to fall and the next thing he knew he was safely seated inside. He was not aware of any intermediate experience. He rationalised it as being somehow in contact with alternative universes (Schrodinger's Cat in Vietnam?), but possibly he went into some kind of "zombie overdrive". I suspect that this would not be uncommon in times of extreme stress.

Stephen Baxter has had people voluntarily undergoing brain surgery to become zombies because they think that consciousness is a bid mistake as a background detail for his novels Titan and Time at least. He hasn't gone into any detail about them, however - it's been almost a throwaway. Group or emergent cognition without consciousness has been explored in Coalescent rather more closely and interestingly.

I'm also intrigued by somnambulism and related sleep disorders. Some people do more than just shuffle around or wake up to find themselves running in the Boston marathon in their pyjamas - they engage in more complex activities such as having sex and driving vehicles. It suggests a brain that can fairly easily switch between conscious and unconscious functioning.

...and following on from that, it raises the question of different kinds of consciousness, not merely off/on switches. The conscious "I" may "decide" to move my arm after the nerve impulse is already on its way, my eyes scan very little of the room but the brain convinces me that I can see all of it and so on because pointy-haired me happens to believe fully the "executive summaries" the busy little Dilberts lower down in my brain send. Now, I happen to think that I see the world in real time with what I see correlating with what's really there. What if there was some sort of arrangement that better suited the role of consciousness as "consultant" as some models propose? Would I need to be engaged in what I perceive to be real time or far more detached? Would I need to perceive the equivalent of bright glossy photos with my eyes instead of clusters of symbols? The experience might be rather like the high functioning, car driving, sexually active sleepwalker dreaming of purely fantastic surroundings and actions but nontheless effectively engaging with the world.

We might, for cuteness' sake, call these respectively the Pointy-Haired Boss and Dogbert modes of consciousness.

Of course, that sort of speculation could degenerate into a circular argument about solipsism and dreaming butterflies, but nonetheless...

It might be interesting to have the equivalent of a dial in my head that I can twist to alter my level and mode of conscious engagement - a boring meeting turns into a vague dream, a single malt becomes overwhelmingly intense and complex and so on. Naturally such a system would be open to abuse, but certainly more INTERESTING kinds of abuse than is the case in most old sf plots about mind-controlling dictatorships.

April 29, 2007 at 7:08 PM  
Blogger TheRat said...

Good zombie fiction is posible, why, look at World War Z, the greatest book on zombies I have read on a while. Didn't liked Cell as much, since King is pretty much baseless in there, shambling like a zombie, since he based himself on Romero's undead.

What about a whole new way of zombie, based on the hindbrain being more capable. Maybe a twist on the zombie apocalypse thing, only its totally peaceful and takes a lot of time. One day, the last human wakes up to see that outside everything is normal, only he is somehow slower.

Hooray for Watt's zombies.

April 30, 2007 at 10:04 AM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

Anyone for Open-source zombies?

******

re: Release notes for v. 1.22

This markedly improves my runtime experience with the current release of Zubuntu, but I think there may be a bug or two in those subroutines you set up to handle walking and running. My zombie keeps running at inappropriate times, like when it's facing a wall, or at the top of the stairs. I just went ahead and cleaned those up.

Now I'm getting complaints from my stupid Mickey-Shaft using neighbour. Something about his overpriced drone getting disassembled last night. The guy's a dick, though, so I don't care.

Have you heard any news about Sinkowski's "Blue Hat" re-release?

******

I'm not an open-source guy, but I seem to recall that one of those systems - Linux, or Unix - used a penguin as its icon. Somebody needs to crack open the PhotoShop.

April 30, 2007 at 11:46 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Hey Evelyn, thanks for that link. Not just the story you pointed us to, but that whole site has got some really interesting stuff. I've added it to my morningly read'n'feed.

Trey, don't know much about these Pyr guys, although I seem to recall someone mentioning somewhere that Pyr might be averse to having me on board because of my reaction to various Tor-related issues.

Brett said, among other things, "Some people do more than just shuffle around or wake up to find themselves running in the Boston marathon in their pyjamas - they engage in more complex activities such as having sex and driving vehicles. It suggests a brain that can fairly easily switch between conscious and unconscious functioning." In fact, I seem to recall that someone a few years back was actually acquitted of murder because he drove to the scene, committed the act, cleaned up the mess and drove back home while he was asleep. Put that together with Metzinger's(?) observation that dreaming is in fact a conscious state almost by definition, because the self is aware of the events being dreamed — the only difference is that the self is experiencing input that's internally generated, as opposed to impulses coming in from outside.

What does this do to notions of culpability, when someone commits an act in their sleep? You can't say it was involuntary-- something in that brain wanted the victim dead, and acted on that desire. But even if that agent was, in fact, some incarnation of the waking self, I don't see how you can rightly hold the waking self accountable for something it wanted to do, but never actually did. (Hell, if we go down that road, you can lock me away right now for ridding the world of everyone from Dubya to Ratzinger.)

So is there something else in there, some other Hyde-type agent that comes out at night and does what the primary persona only dreams of? If one conjoined twin commits a crime, do you lock them both up, or let the guilty one go free?

Maybe this guy should have been given a jail term, to be served exclusively while he was sleeping...

April 30, 2007 at 12:21 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Oh, and to all of you... I hope you don't think that I'm contemplating writing a novel about zombies, any more than I wrote "Blindsight" about vampires. I don't think there's enough there to hang a whole book on. But it would add an nifty element to a larger work, and fast zombies would fit nicely into at least two of the projects I'm currently turning over over in my head.

April 30, 2007 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 30, 2007 at 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although...you never actually said the book you're contemplating wouldn't be a Blindsight sequel, and these notions do seem to expand upon the themes of "consciousness as an aberration and a hindrance" in Blindsight. Dare we dream of high-concept zombie vs. vampiris conflicts?

That's frickin' eerie. I was thinking the exact same thing this morning.

- anonypost by razorsmile

May 1, 2007 at 12:22 AM  
Anonymous AR said...

Before taking the fact that the reptile brain is better at one thing and assuming that it's better at a lot of things, I'd want to see more research into what it is that's lost. Because it must be something. There is a lot of information going through the lines that get cut when someone gains blindsight. What, exactly, did those lines carry? What, exactly, did the brain areas at the ends of those lines actually process? Conscious vision, we know that much. But what else?

Also, you've mentioned that all the parts of the brain that we suspect contain consciousness are found all the way down the vertebrate lineage. I'm inclined to think that if this is true, then a counter-productive sense of self had plenty of time to be weeded out, and wouldn't seem to have exclusively arisen along with modern human sapience. What you said would seem to imply that if it's so extremely entrenched in the human brain, then the vampires aren't much better off, and must have superior intelligence for entirely unrelated reasons. That doesn't imply that it's actually GOOD for something, of course. Diploidism is also firmly entrenched in birds and mammals, even though having 8 or so copies of ones DNA instead would be really nice in regards to radiation tolerance and cancer resistance.

Perhaps we are confusing self-awareness with the mechanisms that are attributed to it. Maybe it's just attached to that area in an off-hand way, not consuming much energy, but contributing nothing. Except for the entire reason that any of this matters to begin with.

May 1, 2007 at 1:14 AM  
Blogger has said...

Anyone for Open-source zombies?

One Zombie Per Child. Now with fully autonomous collaborative mesh networking.

"Fiiiiiirmwaaaare!!!!"

May 1, 2007 at 6:56 AM  
Blogger Denni said...

It might be interesting to have the equivalent of a dial in my head that I can twist to alter my level and mode of conscious engagement - a boring meeting turns into a vague dream, a single malt becomes overwhelmingly intense and complex and so on. Naturally such a system would be open to abuse, but certainly more INTERESTING kinds of abuse than is the case in most old sf plots about mind-controlling dictatorships.

Reminiscent of Greg Egan's 'Reasons to be Cheerful', although that character's problem was lack of emotion.

Clearly, many of the points raised have already been addressed in fiction in one way or another, but not in a way that you'll address them.

I, for one, look forward to that novel! And I love the way you get me thinking about stuff when I'm reading the science pieces in your blog.

May 1, 2007 at 8:39 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

I don't know about you guys, but boring meetings turn into vague dreams without having a dial in my head...

Scott said "Although...you never actually said the book you're contemplating wouldn't be a Blindsight sequel". Well, I'll say it now: what we're talking about here is a sidequel, something that happens not after the events of Blindsight but contemporaneous to them. After all, we don't really know yet what's going on back in the innersys. We don't know what Siri's dad or the vampires are up to, or what happened to the Icarus Array there at the end. We do know, however, that there was a telematter link between Theseus and Icarus throughout most of the story, and presumably it works both ways. Granted, I've made it pretty explicit that the telematter facility is only up for beaming simple molecules, not macroscopic objects. But there may be ways around that if you're a scrambler. I refer you to the orange-crate analogy that Vonnegut (peace be upon him) used to describe the behavior of Ice-9 in "Cat's Cradle".

I also think it would be kind of cool, during the course of Dumbspeech, to receive these intermittent and cryptic messages from the Theseus expedition way out in the Oort. Of course, none of the characters know what's going on out there, so most of the messages don't make any sense at all to them-- but the reader knows, and that's gonna add a whole new level'o'dread. I hope.

That's one idea I'm working up. Another is the Proceedings of the Biennial Conference on the Evolution and Ecology of Vampires, that coffee-table-type book that I've mentioned in a few interviews. A third might be best described as a cross between The Forever War, Stargate, and Bob the Builder. Or maybe The Honeymooners.

But I don't want to give too much away. I'm only now discovering that the downside of letting you guys talk back to me is, I get all excited and want to throw out all the ideas I'm playing with for group discussion. Which I gotta show some restraint over, or there won't be any surprises left for the books...

Assuming there are any books. I suppose it's time to try and get myself a decent agent...

May 1, 2007 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

ar thoughtfully posted a bunch of things, some of which I'll respond to here (because stupid blogger won't let me thread comments...)

"Before taking the fact that the reptile brain is better at one thing and assuming that it's better at a lot of things, I'd want to see more research into what it is that's lost. Because it must be something. There is a lot of information going through the lines that get cut when someone gains blindsight. What, exactly, did those lines carry? What, exactly, did the brain areas at the ends of those lines actually process? Conscious vision, we know that much. But what else?"

My impression is that, while blindsight may be way faster and more sensitive to subtle stimuli than cognitive vision, it ain't all that much on detail. Movement, light/dark contrasts, near/far and coarse object allocation. AFAIK, a blindsighted individual could never read a newspaper, for example. The rez is too low.

I'm just slinging slaw here, but I wonder if the main difference between lower and upper vision has to do with interpolation. The input stimuli are the same, obviously-- but we "see" a continuous streaming world, although the eye only sends us a series of freeze-frames. We think we see across a 180° visual arc, whereas in fact we've only got hi-rez vision for a few critical central degrees, and the jumping of our focus gives us the illusion of complete coverage. Is that the real difference between lower and upper? Upper confabulates and generates a user-friendly (but illusory) interface, whereas lower just accepts the input as is? (And does that mean I'm wrong about blindsight and typeface acuity?)

"Also you've mentioned that all the parts of the brain that we suspect contain consciousness are found all the way down the vertebrate lineage. I'm inclined to think that if this is true, then a counter-productive sense of self had plenty of time to be weeded out, and wouldn't seem to have exclusively arisen along with modern human sapience."

Maybe that's me being imprecise: maybe "wakefulness" would have been a better term. Everyone down to the boney fish has a reticular formation, and if you fuck with the ret, you impair conciousness. This has led some to conclude that the seat of consciousness is in the ret (Interestingly, the ret doesn't stay lit during dreams, which are a "conscious-while-asleep kinda state; there's a hmmm in there somewhere.) But even if that's the case, surely there are different degrees of consciousness, all the way from "systems online and scanning for food/threats/mates" up to "oh my god the universe is so vast and incomprehensible and what's the point of my miserable empty existence". That latter kind obviously involves more than just the ret, and is, I would argue, more likely to be maladaptive in a survival sense than fight/flight/fuck.

"Diploidism is also firmly entrenched in birds and mammals, even though having 8 or so copies of ones DNA instead would be really nice in regards to radiation tolerance and cancer resistance."

In regards to phenotypic adaptation to new conditions, though, not so much.

"Perhaps we are confusing self-awareness with the mechanisms that are attributed to it. Maybe it's just attached to that area in an off-hand way, not consuming much energy, but contributing nothing.

You'll have to convince me. Everything I've read suggests that sapient consciousness is so expensive that a whole chunk of the brain (in the anterior cingulate gyrus) is devoted to keeping it from getting out of hand. And certainly, just in terms of the logic of the engine, the more complex the calculations, the greater the glucose demand. There ain't no Moore's Law for neurons.

It would be nice, though.

May 1, 2007 at 10:34 AM  
Anonymous AR said...

In regards to phenotypic adaptation to new conditions, though, not so much.

It's just another thing that's good for life and bad for the organism. Unless you're kineococcus radiotolerans, of course.

You'll have to convince me. Everything I've read suggests that sapient consciousness is so expensive that a whole chunk of the brain (in the anterior cingulate gyrus) is devoted to keeping it from getting out of hand.

I don't think I'm explaining this right. Let me try by analogy: once, all intelligence was attributed to concious thought, and more and more turned out to be found in other areas. Well, suppose this goes even further than that, and concious intelligence is also largely independent of what most people think of when they think of consciousness, and that even whatever it is that concious intelligence actually does, it can do just as well without also having to maintain the parasitic homunculus that passively watches everything.

I'm thinking then, that "concious thought" might just be the one part of intelligence that happens to be the part "we" experience ourselves from, and so maybe, "What good is concious thought?" and "What good is consciousness?" are actually different questions.

May 1, 2007 at 2:03 PM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

You don't need an agent, you have us :D

-------------------

Well, I'll say it now: what we're talking about here is a sidequel, something that happens not after the events of Blindsight but contemporaneous to them.

The sidequel was inevitable, as far as I'm concerned. (Positive) Magical thinking never fails!

-------------------

Now, quick non-necrotized zombies ...
... okay, here's what I've got.

The way I figure it, these guys are going to have insanely quick reflexes, phenomenal senses (or at least, more brainpower devoted to that end), inexorable determination (the kind that allows a disemboweled samurai to garotte enemies with his own entrails) -- and a near-total lack of foresight.

So basically, Norse Berserkers but cooler(-headed).

If we go with the "switch" option i.e. like your Special Ops guys, we can widen the net and make it a fairly common upgrade for professionals. Not just soldiers but programmers, police, artists, logistics managers, engineers, interrogators, possibly even psychologists.

Think programmable instincts, brainstem macros. Instead of either having to react to the unexpected or having to drill in something till it sticks, you draw up a schematic for a particular reflex you want to have and insert it into the subconscious (or unconscious, whatever) where it waits until you need to flip over into zombie mode.

Basically, it's an abstraction of the ostenisble purpose of having a conscious mind: running checksums and error-correction. Conscious trains the subconscious until it is no longer needed. Elizabots of the self.

---------------------

Yep, that's all I've got.

May 1, 2007 at 3:16 PM  
Anonymous AR said...

Conscious trains the subconscious until it is no longer needed.

Thank you for that. I had been trying to think of a way to say that for a while. Well, that could be how concious thought is adaptive. It doesn't do anything even remotely well, but it can do anything. It is the bridge between something you've never done before and something that you do on skill.

But I'm not so sure that these zombies would be any faster than trained humans. Elite combatants train enough that things like identifying an individual as either a threat, ally, or bystandard, and shooting or not shooting appropriately bypass the need to consciously decide to do so in the first place, so how could bypassing the concious mind by some other means instead improve on that?

It might be quicker to learn that way, but I'm not sure the final product would be that much better.

May 1, 2007 at 3:48 PM  
Blogger Brett D said...

Just packing a few more random thoughts into a post before breakfast. It sseems that I'm in an awkward time zone and can't participate in this discussion in real time without being... well, a high funtioning sleepwalker.

I certainly feel that Razorsmile's analogy has the feel of, er, "truthiness" about it. I suppose that it may coincide with what I glibly called the Dogbert mode of consciousness - a consultant that acts with utter self-interest while all the real work is done lower down the chain.

Stretching the analogy, consciousness might be thought of as a kind of parasite or symbiote that has made a niche for itself in the brain and just got bigger and bigger, with some (unknown) benefit for the rest of the being. I don't propose this as a serious hypothesis of course (I've got the wrong letters after my name), but as a thought experiment - if this were the case, what would be the consequences?

I know that meetings can seem like vague dreams, but when that happens, I act like I'm vaguely dreaming. Using the magical dial in my head, I could become a perfectly fluent zombie, engaging with everyone as if I was giving them my full attention.

I guess that I'd be functioning like this hilarious little site, the online postmodern essay generator:

http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo

A thought on Blindsighted reading. OK, so the rez is too low to read a newspaper say, but maybe the problem might be that reading involves semantic interpretation of the words. When reading we (usualy) do not observe the shapes of words and then deduce what they mean, but have learned to take the meaning and the word as inextricably linked. Would a blindsighted person, with cut off access to the consciousness of seeing be unable to read because this link was also cut off? This is something that could be experimentally tested and I'd be interested to know it anyone has done it.

"Dumbspeech" might sound less like a White House press conference if it were called "mutespeech" perhaps?

While we're mainly wondering here about the nature and quality of consciousness - or lack thereof - there's another theme implicit here and in Blindsight - that human beings would once again be prey animals. We have been the apex predators on account of our technology, with all the complacent assumptions that go with it. Our posthuman children like the vampires will turn us once again into hominids hiding from the lions and leopards. What happens to the culture and ecology of the inner system in the sidequel? Does it become a hi-tech African veldt with sentient gazelles trying to create a new culture to cope with the new conditions?

(The question is rhetorical, by the way, I don't expect an immediate answer with appendices and references).

Literary notes:

There are thematic parallels here with Wells' The War of the Worlds...

Suzy McKee Charnas' The Vampire Tapestry looks at the case of one vampire and his place as a predator in an interesting, very intelligent way (he's a real biological being - none of this turning into bats or aversion to garlic nonsense).

I know the Egan story. Very interesting - anyone else who hasn't read it should.

May 1, 2007 at 5:30 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 1, 2007 at 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think you can apply known behaviors of vampires to one particular vampire, Sarasti, so directly. I mean, look at the variance found in humans. Maybe he was altruistic. Unlikely, but conceivable in light of how humans, who are also predators and, at times, cold blooded murders of their own kind, can develop concern for animals they would naturally be eating and people they will never know on the other side of the world.

I've heard it said that there is no such thing as morality: just differences in how large people regard their "tribe" to be. Some people include only themselves or immediate family, others extend such consideration to their city, and some care deeply, in a highly personal way, about all of humanity. But to me, that just sounds like a particularly good way to judge a person's morality: How big is your tribe?

May 1, 2007 at 10:31 PM  
Anonymous rabbit said...

Nifty. I would totally pay to read about that kind of zombie.

May 2, 2007 at 7:59 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Jesus. Turn my back for half a day and I get a cascade.

OK, I'm going to go through and answer bits and pieces of the above right here, and then I'm going to take some other stuff and throw it into a whole new posting because it fits in with a creepy 2006 paper I just read in Nature about using chips to rewire monkey brains.

ar said "whatever it is that concious intelligence actually does, it can do just as well without also having to maintain the parasitic homunculus that passively watches everything."

And I pretty much agree. In fact, the suggestion Blindsight puts forth is that it can do even better without the parasite.

And then razorsmile kicked in with "Conscious trains the subconscious until it is no longer needed." (seconded by ar), and "brainstem macros", and you're both gonna have to wait for the next posting to get my response to that because it involves creepy neurochipped monkeys. (I will answer ar's doubts that zombies would be faster than conventional humans, though. I'm pretty sure they would be. Hindbrain vision is literally orders of magnitude faster than the cognitive, hi-detail version, and because its closer to the spinal cord it's that much closer to being pure reflex. The mere fact that you don't have to go through all that wet tubing can't help but speed things up, in the same was that a car barrelling down the straitaway is going to get where it's going a lot faster than one navigating an endless series of cloverloops and metropolitan grids.)

Re brett's thoughts that "so the rez is too low to read a newspaper say, but maybe the problem might be that reading involves semantic interpretation of the words. When reading we (usualy) do not observe the shapes of words and then deduce what they mean, but have learned to take the meaning and the word as inextricably linked. Would a blindsighted person, with cut off access to the consciousness of seeing be unable to read because this link was also cut off? This is something that could be experimentally tested and I'd be interested to know it anyone has done it."...

I've never heard of such an experiment, but whether the blindsighted could read depends, I think, on where in the system the wires got cut. Whether we consciously recognise words as shapes or as pure meaning doesn't matter-- the brain obviously has to distinguish those shapes at some point, and that involves the visual cortex. If the cortex is working properly, but we lack conscious access to it-- then yes, you might get blindreaders. But as I understand it there's also a kind of pineal frogsight that doesn't involved advanced image-processing. It's pure light and shadow and movement. That's the sight that's incredibly fast on the draw, but it simply lacks the acuity to parse reading-res input even if the upper brain is conceptually equipped to handle it.

Oh, and "Dumbspeech" is kind of a working title. I am quite fond of it (I've joked a few times that it's actually told from the POV of the scramblers, and consists of 300 blank pages), but I'm guessing that I'll come up with something else by the time I need a final title.

I dunno. "Battlefield Earth" has kind of a nice ring to it...

May 2, 2007 at 5:18 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

scott said:

Is this a simple matter of a predator protecting its foodsource, or something more "altruistic"? ... What hold did the government have on him in the first place, and how did they "leash" him for the mission? Was it even his agenda at all? Where did Sarasti stop and the Captain begin, and for how long had it been going on either way? Was it domination or fusion?

These are all such good questions that I deliberately left them unanswered after raising them at the end of the book, basically to allow me wiggle room to play with the concepts further down the road if I wanted to. But of course I had to know what those answers were in order to keep the plot consistent, so, here's my take: The Captain was basically running Sarasti all along. Sarasti was vastly smarter (and less conscious) than the humans he rode herd over, and in turn the Captain was vastly smarter (and even less conscious) than Sarasti. (It could hardly be otherwise, assuming Moore's Law keeps on keeping on for at least a few more cycles.) The real question is, what kind of failsafes and leashes do we have on our AIs, and in fact, do we even need any? Intelligence doesn't imply a survival agenda, or a desire for autonomy or control. It doesn't imply desires of any kind. So an engineered AI is not going to have any particular reason to rebel or follow its own path or care whether it lives or dies: those are characteristics of life, not intelligence.

But of course, we're not engineering our AIs any more, are we? We're using genetic algorithms. So they actually are being shaped by natural selection, and that is a process that breeds agendas and conflicts like, well, life itself...

(And Scott, if you do complete a Sarasti portrait, you *will* send me a jpeg, won't you? Pleeeeeze?)

May 2, 2007 at 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Branko Collin said...

Yesterday I started reading the archives of your blog after having seen mentioned your name somewhere, but had not gotten to this point yet. Then I went to bed and wrote a short story there about a guy who managed to lead a fruitful life after having his brain amputated. Now I am wondering if I saw flashes of sentences from this entry when I scrolled down.

May 9, 2007 at 8:33 AM  
Anonymous Branko Collin said...

I am reading Heinlein's Friday now, in which the heroine not only shares her name with the book, but is also an 'Artificial Person' (bred and engineered, but from human stock) who has the built-in ability to suppress her super-human capabilities. Unfortunately these capabilities huddle to the fore as a reflex in situations that her subconscious mind deems dangerous, so that she tends to have a lot of splainin' to do afterwards. A bit like Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight who is at times slightly too handy with cutlery for a boring housewive.

From what I understand how language recognition works, the brain forms hypotheses of what exactly it is reading/hearing based on the information thus far received. The interpretation of further incoming information is then matched to and sometimes influenced by these hypotheses. This can go wrong with anybody. See "Garden Path Sentences".

Some rule-based speech recognition systems were built after this model of cognition, but I forget whether they were succesful (see "HEARSAY-II"). Late 1990s commercial speech recognizers were all built on simple statistical models, IIRC.

May 9, 2007 at 10:18 AM  
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