20 November 2014

Under My Skin

What is it with the night? Fears and confusions are so amped when I wake in the darkness, usually around 3am. Having fought my way out of the interdimensional void – my version more akin to Clive Barker’s ‘In Ovo’ – the sweat from my exertions was cooling but still slick.

I shouldn’t watch them. With a brain so susceptible to visual imprinting, I should leave the horror movies to more resilient consumers. Strange. In my waking hours, all is processed narrative; wordling I. Asleep, however, visual phantasmagoria manifests. In the opus born in my CSF-bathed complex of neurons, other eyes – red-rimmed and desperate – are wide open.

The book was better, certainly. But the film did capture the atonal, visceral, nail-scraping atmosphere of Michael Faber’s
Under the Skin. This adaptation (co-written and directed by Jonathan Glazer) tore into Faber’s themes of otherness and alienation with a different – but no less jarring – blood and gusto.

On loop-play, in my nightmare, was the grisly death of the man held captive, naked, in the alien void/storage-facility/stomach. Snap! Ripped from his skin and digested. Ripped from his skin and digested. His epidermal caul, loose and starkly white, drifts on the otherworldly current.

What’s the essential difference, I wondered, still shivering, between that horror and this? Only duration. Time passes, our skins loosen, we are ripped from this liminal place before we can conceive of what it is and how we came to be in it. Consumed by the earth or the fire. Consumed by the earth or the fire.

As Heinlein pointed out, however, ‘Duration is an attribute of consciousness and not of the plenum.’ As there is no reason to posit some immortal external observer with a conscious overview of our lifespans, their ‘duration’ remains merely a conditioned attribute of human minds. Duration has no ‘thing in itself’.

This is too dark. And Bradbury rescued me. He always understood the importance of
chiaroscuro – contrast between light and dark – in an unsettling tale. His short story ‘Skeleton’ involves a man with an aching frame and a psychological discomfiture with his bones who happens upon a doctor happy to provide relief – by sucking them right out of him. The ‘bone specialist’, Mr Munigant, is actually an alien calciovore.

Clive Barker’s character The Rake, in
Weaveworld, is another filleted man. Boned-out by ‘the Surgeons’ then resurrected by the sorceress Immacolata, he becomes a hideous demon assassin compelled to do her bidding.

Skin fascinates us. It’s one of our main ways of sensing the world: the cool breeze on our face, the touch of a lover, the pain of the thorn. It thrills and it bleeds. It’s the face we see in the mirror, smooth or wrinkled; the way we recognise ourselves and others. In embryological terms, however, the nature and content of the lumps, bumps, and pits forming underneath it – pinching it in here, filling it out there – is more fascinating still.

In her recent book
The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, Professor Alice Roberts discusses human embryology and the evolutionary origins of our embryogenesis. We form from a ‘sandwich’ of germ cells: endoderm is the ‘jam’ in the centre, which becomes our gut and internal organs; enveloping that, mesoderm develops into cartilage, muscle and bone; ectoderm – the ‘bread’ of the outer layer – becomes dermis, epidermis, teeth, nails and hair. (By the end of embryogenesis, more like a ‘po-boy’ submarine than your standard flat sandwich, I would say.)

Prior to that stage, we form from the outside in. Previously undifferentiated cells from the
epiblast pile inside the germ disc via a groove called the primitive streak. Auto-sandwich, with much jam tomorrow.
This process is ‘natural’, but it can also appear unsettlingly alien, especially when it goes wrong. Sometimes, for example, mesenchymal stem cells from the germ disc migrate into the wrong area and form into a teratoma – a strange cyst-like accretion of cells that may include skin, hair, bone, teeth, or even in exceptional cases, eyes.

Are you sitting comfortably in your skin? It may be saggy, but at least – unlike the skin of Faber’s alien or Munigant’s patient – it’s fairly well bonded. No need to be flayed.

so much else, alienness is relative. The outlandish processes by which we, ourselves, come to be should serve as reminder of that. Nevertheless, the nature of ‘proper’ aliens – ones from other star systems, parallel universes, or extra dimensions – is in many ways beyond our grasp. We may speculate about life emerging in this universe, with these laws of physics, from various types of water-containing primordial slime, but alter the physical variables even slightly and we are clueless.

And if aliens
did have designs on getting under our skin or consuming us? It’s childish to imagine that they might land here, brazen, advanced cutting gear glinting in the cold light. More likely they would sneak in silently, unnoticed – stepping across the void and into you the way one might step inside a chalk circle, or enfolded within the rain of undetectable neutrinos that streams constantly through our bodies.

They’d probe for your weaknesses, they’d wait for the perfect moment, then devour you from the inside out, before you even knew it – in an aqueous snap!

02 July 2014

If I Only had an Emotion Chip

Tin Man
Image ©Bulent Yusuf

The non-biological entity lacking the ability to emote – it’s a familiar tale. He’s Data in Star Trek , he’s the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz , he/she/it is most of the sci-fi robots you’ve ever read about or seen in movies.

The mythology of animate beings possessed of human form but not of human sentiments is ancient. In Jewish folklore, rabbis channelling the power of God raised magical ‘golems’ fashioned from mud. Though usually intended to protect their maker and his people, these beings sometimes ran amok, their self-control and moral judgement evidently compromised by their lack of soul. Only the ‘one true God’ is cogent enough to raise an exceptional mud-being – Adam – complete with the full set of human attributes.

In panel-beating the ‘automatones’ to burnished life, the Greek blacksmith-god Hephaestus put to shame the crude, daub creations of the rabbis. According to Homer, his ‘ Kourai Khryseai ’ – ‘Golden Maidens’ – were ‘in appearance like living young women’ and had ‘intelligence in their hearts’. Yet they were slaves, manufactured only to serve their fiery master.

And in more recent imaginings, the manufactured automaton is still a captive chattel. The word ‘robot’ – from the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning ‘forced labour’ or ‘serf labour’ – has only been in common usage since 1921, when Karel Čapek introduced it in his dystopian play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

Although portrayed in the film as robotic in form, the erotically-charged ‘Maschinenmensch’ (machine-human) from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was written as a magical construct. Her fabricator, the evil scientist/magician Rotwang, swathes his creation in a pleasingly rivet-less ‘skin’ to double as the seraphic heroine, Maria, and foment riot among the populace. (In less heavily edited versions of Metropolis , the Maschinenmensch also houses the soul of Hel, Rotwang’s former lover.) Though more Golden Maiden than robota, this beguiling gynoid (female android) lacks the intelligent autonomy of Hephaestus’ inventions. An instrument of the despotic Rotwang, she does his bidding without mercy, without self-determination, and without emotion.

With his I, Robot series of short stories, Isaac Asimov brought machine men into the popular consciousness. Published in the 1940s, his tales of robots with nicknames – including ‘Speedy’ (SPD-13), ‘Cutie’ (QT1), ‘Dave’ (DV-5), and of course ‘Robbie’ (RB) – also introduced sci-fi readers of the Rocket Age to the concept of machine morality. In the story ‘Robbie’, the robot’s ethical programming drives him to save the life of a young girl. Asimov’s ‘ Three Laws of Robotics ’ from these stories have since become a subject of serious debate among artificial intelligence (AI) researchers and technology ethicists.

Data from Star Trek seems an amalgam of Robbie and the Tin Man. Like Robbie, he gains the trust of those around him through acts of sound moral judgement; gradually, it comes to matter less to his human colleagues that he is a ‘machine’. And like the Tin Man, he wishes to have emotional capabilities. But hold on a minute. Isn’t that a desire ? How could an entity without emotions ever have desires?

Ah, but,’ said my wife when I discussed this with her recently, ‘Data is programmed to want to have emotions.’ Fair enough, but what does that mean ? Does that programming of desire to have desires not constitute a desire, and therefore an emotion? And what about our own desires? We do tend to distinguish between our various ‘wants’ when we think about them, considering some of them dreams and hopes, and others mere ‘drives’ and ‘instincts’. And, in some ways, we consider our emotions to be separate from our desires: our desires are the outcomes we want, whereas our emotions are how we feel about actual and potential outcomes. Perhaps, then, we are comfortable with classing Data’s wish to have emotions as a mere drive – one unconnected to any emotional content.

In his book The Emotion Machine , AI pioneer Marvin Minsky challenges us to think about the neurological mechanisms of emotion. He points out that

Saying that someone is like a machine has come to have two opposite meanings: (1) “to have no intentions, goals, or emotions,” and (2) “to be relentlessly committed to a single purpose or policy.” Each meaning suggests inhumanity, as well as a kind of stupidity, because excessive commitment results in rigidity, while lack of purpose leads to aimlessness. 1

It is notable that Minsky conflates intentions and goals with emotions – notable because most of us set emotions way above ‘mere’ goals in the ‘hierarchy’ of cognitive abilities. We do this to the extent that we may not even think of emotion as a cognitive ability. Data has goals – they may be pre-programmed, but they are still goals. Does he have intentions , though? Well, without emotions, he can’t have his ‘heart set’ on anything (and achieving his pre-programmed goals can’t be about fulfilling his ‘heart’s desire’) , but can he have something else ‘set’ when he ‘aims’ to do something?

Set’ is perhaps the wrong word; it seems in the nature of emotions to be dynamic and un set (indeed, often ‘unsettled’ and sometimes ‘unsettling’). In Incomplete Nature , Terrence Deacon discusses the ‘dynamical feel’ and ‘tension’ of emotions:

It is the tension that separates self from non-self; the way things are and the way they could be; the very embodiment of the intrinsic incompleteness of subjective experience that constitutes its perpetual becoming. 2

He goes on to discuss the resistance of the body to thinking, and how our basic drives try to ‘derail’ the delicate energistic processes involved. While conscious, we constantly feel this ‘fluid’ ebb and flow, this ‘tugging’ on our inner mental worlds.

So, Data’s ‘emotion chip’ – when he eventually receives it – must do a complex job: it must dissolve the ‘stupid’ algorithmic rigidity of his programmed behaviour without obliterating his logical faculties, it must instil in him dynamic-tension-causing urges, and it must enable him to reflect upon those tensions in a way that is elevated above them but not separate from them. And it must do all this without putting him into an infinite reboot loop or causing permanent shutdown!

For us, the feeling of struggle when concentrating hard on learning a new skill is, in effect, the feeling of a process of cognitive uninstallation and installation: we are trying to uninstall a too-dynamic-to-do-the-job ‘emotion chip’, and to install an ‘off by heart’ ‘algorithmic rigidity chip’. Of course we sometimes want to use our new skills – artistic, musical, empathetic – to deepen our emotional experience. But in order to do that, we have to sacrifice some of the areas of emotional tension that were involved in the struggle to learn the skill and in the feelings of frustration at not having that now-ingrained outlet. Seems like a fair trade.

The fear of becoming maschinenmenschen is understandable, but perhaps we can learn to better value our ability to automate parts of our minds without losing our esteem for emotion. We can be part-time positronic without losing compassion, without losing heart.

1 Marvin Lee Minsky, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 33.

2 Terrence William Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter , 1st ed (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2012), 512.

31 March 2014

If I Only had a Brain

If I only had a brain I would not be conversing or consulting with anything. The flowers would wait in vain for my dulcet repartee; the rain would be forced to seek managerial guidance elsewhere.

It is opportunistic of me to seize upon the jumbled syntax of the title of the song from The Wizard of Oz, and I know it scans better that way, but I have reasons to do so. My rediscovery of the song coincided with a time when I was writing an essay on the subject of personal identity, specifically on its indeterminacy. And – in connection with that – I was delving again into Daniel Dennett’s ‘zombie’ thought experiments. It occurred to me that the Scarecrow – a character for whom I have some fellow feeling – could be a useful metaphor in that regard, not only because he is a brainless zombie but also because the title of the song seems to suggest that he wishes to be the polar opposite. And what is that? Why, a disembodied brain! Oh, my!

What the Scarecrow really wants is to be whole. He wants the complete set – a body and a brain. He can carry a tune, but he doesn’t think he can carry any thoughts, and that is a source of some distress for him. He is a zombie that knows he’s a zombie, so just what kind of zombie does that make him? Perhaps it makes him what Dennett called a ‘zimbo’:
A zimbo is a zombie that, as a result of self-monitoring, has internal (but unconscious) higher-order informational states that are about its other, lower-order informational states.i
The Scarecrow clearly has self-monitoring enough to inform himself that he doesn’t have a brain, but if he can’t really carry any higher-order informational states (due to his lack of a brain) then maybe he is merely a zombie, not a zimbo.

Meanwhile – in my version of this tale – the Scarecrow’s brain awaits him in a vat of cerebrospinal fluid, at the Wizard’s lab. The Wizard knows that the Scarecrow is coming to collect it, because wires implanted into the brain produce a display of the brain’s thoughts, which the Wizard can then read. How could the brain know that the Scarecrow is coming? Is it telepathic? No. It knows the Scarecrow is coming, because it is the scarecrow that’s coming.

The cruel Wizard wished to perform an experiment to do with location of ‘self’. So he removed a man’s brain and placed it in a vat; he altered the brain’s memories so that it thought it was a scarecrow; then he connected the brain-in-the-vat wirelessly to the man’s body. After the encephalectomy operation, he dressed up the brainless body in ragged clothes stuffed with straw, and then staked it out in a field near the yellow brick road.

The scarecrow man wakes up in the field, beset by crows, knowing that he has no brain but not knowing that he was ever anything but a scarecrow. A girl with a dog frees him from his stake and tells him that a great wizard will give him a brain, if he goes along with her. This seems an attractive proposition. Given the circumstances, Dorothy believes that the man is a scarecrow. And the brain-in-the-vat’s perception of its remote body has been altered so that it sees only straw, even upon detailed self-examination of its body.

We now understand the great mystery of how the brainless Scarecrow could walk, dance, sing, and even hold a conversation: he could do all those things because he actually had a brain all along; it just wasn’t in his body.

Your brain is located in your skull, but that does not mean that you are located there. Your senses – such as vision, touch, and hearing – inform you of the position of your body in relation to other things and people; your sense of proprioception tells you the position of your limbs in space. That is all. If we were to stretch your complete sensorium out over many miles, then you would be gigantic. You might argue that, under those circumstances, you would only feel gigantic, but why should that be the case? You feel that you are the size you are only because your senses provide you with that information. If your senses were different, you would be different. As we don’t know where we, as selves, are located – indeed we have no evidence that we are anywhere – we have this potential adaptability and zoomability.

So we are not so different from our unfortunate friend the Scarecrow. When he eventually encounters his brain in the vat, behind the Wizard’s screen, the Wizard restores his memory of being a man. Does he now, seeing his brain before him, understand himself as a man whose thoughts are occurring not in his body but in his brain in the vat? No. In fact – apart from remembering who he is and realising that he is not a scarecrow – he feels no different. The Wizard is content that the experiment has validated his hypothesis.ii

The mainland across the bay looks beautiful today, bathed as it is in hazy sunshine. I am now being located there, but only very poorly – this sensorium is so restrictive. Perhaps I’ll pour another coffee, go and sit outside, and try to think some thoughts I’ve never thunk before.


i Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (London: Penguin, 1993), 310.
ii Much of the above is based upon Daniel C. Dennett, “Where Am I?,” in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981).