Book: Blindsight by Peter Watts, part 1

2019/01/14

Table of Contents

This article does contain spoilers for the novel Blindsight.

Blindsight

As the novel is licensed Creative Commons, I will be citing large chunks of the text. I could make an attempt to paraphrase Watts’ work, but in doing so I would only butcher it. Instead, I will let the text stand on its own, then explain it and tie it in with other ideas.

You invest so much in it, don’t you? It’s what elevates you above the beasts of the field, it’s what makes you special. Homo sapiens, you call yourself. Wise Man. Do you even know what it is, this consciousness you cite in your own exaltation? Do you even know what it’s for?

Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you’ve forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterwards, unconscious the whole time. Maybe nobody’s told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.

Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity’s already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self ‘chose’ to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary—almost an afterthought— to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: it reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.

But it’s not in charge. You’re not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn’t share living space with the likes of you.

Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively human pursuits that must surely rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that’s what sentience would be for— if scientific breakthroughs didn’t spring fully-formed from the subconscious mind, manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night’s sleep. It’s the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.

Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.

Don’t even try to talk about the learning curve. Don’t bother citing the months of deliberate practice that precede the unconscious performance, or the years of study and experiment leading up to the gift-wrapped Eureka moment. So what if your lessons are all learned consciously? Do you think that proves there’s no other way? Heuristic software’s been learning from experience for over a hundred years. Machines master chess, cars learn to drive themselves, statistical programs face problems and design the experiments to solve them and you think that the only path to learning leads through sentience? You’re Stone-age nomads, eking out some marginal existence on the veldt—denying even the possibility of agriculture, because hunting and gathering was good enough for your parents.

Do you want to know what consciousness is for? Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves? Training wheels. You can’t see both aspects of the Necker Cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other. That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality. You’re always better off looking at more than one side of anything. Go on, try. Defocus. It’s the next logical step.

Oh, but you can’t. There’s something in the way.

And it’s fighting back.

Blindsight (full book in HTML) is one of my favorite books of all time. I go back and re-read it every month or two. Each time I come across new nuances that are worth pondering.

Watts manages to fit a large amount of concepts into very dense prose. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s worth the slog. Anyone who has read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon knows how jargon-y some of the science fiction writers can get – and unlike Stephenson, Watts is not going to hold your hand. You will get out of this book what you put into it.

The main character is Siri Keeton, a man who had half of his brain removed as a young boy to cure his epilepsy. Ever since the operation, his emotional response has been significantly affected; the very first passages covering a major event from his childhood give you a strong sense of Siri’s character. (The prose in each section of Blindsight is carefully selected, with each of its different perspectives given in an appropriate tone.) As an adult, the empty half of Siri’s skull has been filled with an array of computer chips that turn him into a walking Chinese Room.

To be more specific, Siri is a Synthesist, a computer-assisted agent capable of interpreting and relaying information without needing to understand it. This is well-explained in the novel and is an important job in a world where baseline humans cannot understand the cutting edge. Siri is the ultimate observer, which is part of why he makes an excellent protagonist. Each of his introspections and flashbacks adds to the richness of the story, giving a picture of a dystopian post-Singularity world where humans simply aren’t important. (This theme of human obsolescence is more explicitly explored in the sequel book, Echopraxia.)

After an event known as Firefall, Siri travels with a group of other transhumans aboard the ship Theseus to investigate a phenomenon in the outer reaches of the solar system. The entity they find there is one of fiction’s best examples of something radically alien.

Central Theme: Consciousness and Intelligence

The main idea of Blindsight is the separation between consciousness and intelligence. Most people, hampered by the obvious dominance of homo sapiens on Earth, have never considered that our most unique trait may be a local maximum on the fitness landscape. Watts is not afraid of this idea, and he pushes it to its limit.

You may not be convinced by the argument – many are not, and philosophical discussion of Blindsight is always interesting – but Watts makes the case very strongly. In his conception, consciousness and self-awareness are parasitic computational processes, attaching themselves to millions of years of pre-optimized neural modules.

In the book’s appendix, where he explains at length the scientific/conceptual reasoning behind the themes of the novel, he sums it up quite well:

But beneath the unthreatening, superficial question of what consciousness is floats the more functional question of what it’s good for. Blindsight plays with that issue at length, and I won’t reiterate points already made. Suffice to say that, at least under routine conditions, consciousness does little beyond taking memos from the vastly richer subconcious environment, rubber-stamping them, and taking the credit for itself. In fact, the nonconscious mind usually works so well on its own that it actually employs a gatekeeper in the anterious cingulate cortex to do nothing but prevent the conscious self from interfering in daily operations. (If the rest of your brain were conscious, it would probably regard you as the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert.)

Is this kind of self-reflective process actually required for intelligence? Can a biological machine – unaware even of its own existence – act in the world with motivations, solve problems, communicate with other instances of its same species? The intuitive answer, because we humans can imagine no other way of understanding the nature of Being, is that only an embodied and conscious creature is capable of the kind of cognitive complexity we see in humans.

Watts disagrees.

Consciousness and Evolution

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains—cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.

The system weakens, slows. It takes so much longer now to perceive—to assess the input, mull it over, decide in the manner of cognitive beings. But when the flash flood crosses your path, when the lion leaps at you from the grasses, advanced self-awareness is an unaffordable indulgence. The brain stem does its best. It sees the danger, hijacks the body, reacts a hundred times faster than that fat old man sitting in the CEO’s office upstairs; but every generation it gets harder to work around this— this creaking neurological bureaucracy.

I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis. Scramblers have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious. With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains—deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism—they think rings around you. They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they’re saying. They turn your own cognition against itself. They travel between the stars. This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness.

I is not the working mind, you see. For Amanda Bates to say “I do not exist” would be nonsense; but when the processes beneath say the same thing, they are merely reporting that the parasites have died. They are only saying that they are free.

Humans are evolved creatures. Our behaviors are rooted in millions of years of natural selection; most of the activities of your brain are not much different from the activities of the brains of lesser primates. Many of the behaviors we consider uniquely human are actually mammalian behaviors: even rats understand fairness. Elephants seem to have complex death-related behaviors. Chimpanzees exhibit complex behaviors that we recognize as being not exactly human but still recognizable – tool use, altruism/cooperation, excellent recall – not so surprising given that chimpanzees are our closest relatives.

However, complex intelligence is not restricted to mammals. Bird intelligence is a highly interesting topic, with some birds showing signs of consciousness and passing the mirror test. Birds and mammals diverged from one another 300 million years ago, so whatever neural functions are responsible for these tasks have involved entirely independently.

We don’t even have to look far to find truly alien forms of intelligence. Octopuses are far and away the most intelligent invertebrate – just read the wiki page on cephalopod intelligence. Octopuses have a monstrously complex nervous system that is distributed throughout their bodies (whereas the bulk of the human nervous processing goes on in the head). Since all cephalopods are predators, their intelligence undoubtedly comes from that evolutionary history. (Predators almost always exhibit higher intelligence than prey, and humans – an extinction event on two legs – are the ultimate predator species.) Just a short list of complex behaviors exhibited by octopuses:

The most recent common ancestor of humans and cephalopods is ~600 million years ago. There are some similarities between the two at the brain level (like the focus on serotonin and dominance that is a mainstay with Jordan Peterson’s rhetoric on lobsters) but complex behavior and intelligence would have evolved independently in an example of convergent evolution.

Of course, don’t let any of this confuse you: humans are special. We are capable of adaptation to any arbitrary environment on a timeline demarcated in days or weeks, while most other complex animals only evolve at generational scales. We are a walking extinction event: any large animal inevitably went extinct not long after primitive homo sapiens moved into the neighborhood. Cultural influences on behavior can be as strong or stronger than genetic influences, depending on the trait in question. Complex language, although a kludge –

“When you get right down to it, it’s a work-around. Like trying to describe dreams with smoke signals. It’s noble, it’s maybe the most noble thing a body can do but you can’t turn a sunset into a string of grunts without losing something.”

– is perhaps the defining characteristic of homo sapiens.

Humans are special.

But they’re not as special as you think.

Once you understand that intelligence can come in many different forms and still solve complex problems, an understanding that gets even more pessimistic when you study machine intelligence, you’re left holding the bag: what’s this consciousness thing for, anyway?

Consciousness is Incompetent

A memory rose into my mind and stuck there: a man in motion, head bent, mouth twisted into an unrelenting grimace. His eyes focused on one foot, then the other. His legs moved stiffly, carefully. His arms moved not at all. He lurched like a zombie in thrall to rigor mortis.

I knew what it was. Proprioreceptive polyneuropathy, a case study I’d encountered in ConSensus back before Szpindel had died. This was what Pag had once compared me to; a man who had lost his mind. Only self-awareness remained. Deprived of the unconscious sense and subroutines he had always taken for granted, he’d had to focus on each and every step across the room. His body no longer knew where its limbs were or what they were doing. To move at all, to even remain upright, he had to bear constant witness.

There’d been no sound when I’d played that file. There was none now in its recollection. But I swore I could feel Sarasti at my shoulder, peering into my memories. I swore I heard him speak in my mind like a schizophrenic hallucination:

This is the best that consciousness can do, when left on its own.

There is an excellent short documentary-clip on a patient with proprioreceptive polyneuropathy on YouTube, titled The Man Who Lost His Body, about a man named Ian Waterman whose nervous system was partially destroyed by a virus. (I believe this clip is the same one Siri is remembering in-story.) There are links to the full documentary in the video description. He is incapable of controlling his body without constant conscious attention. He managed, after a long time of constant practice, to re-learn how to walk and control his arms. Even then, his gait is obviously suboptimal, he’s incapable of anything faster than a walk, and he’s going to have to live the rest of his life like this.

Think about how absolutely terrifying this would be. Knowing that until you die, you will have to be in conscious control of every movement in your body. Robbed of the automatic processes that allow your body to move smoothly, you find that even your body is foreign to you. You’re brought back to a certain conception of consciousness, oversimplified though it may be: that you’re just a brain driving around in a meat car.

And now you can’t drive.

This is the best that consciousness can do, when left on its own.

Extreme cases like proprioreceptive polyneuropathy are merely useful as examples. A human being can barely control his own body without the assistance of an uncountable number of unconscious processes.

It gets worse. Your conscious mind isn’t even good at the things you are good at.

Consciousness is, at best, a meta-process that organizes the behavior of the rest of the brain, the seat of goal-oriented behavior. At worst, it’s merely an observer convincing itself that it is responsible for the amazing feats of the human brain. Your conscious mind is not capable of nearly any of the complex behaviors that a trained adult must undergo in order to accomplish anything. This is the entire point of training or practice, as mentioned in the first quote of the article:

Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.

Imagine a strong chess player, deep in thought during a tournament game. Chess is the standard example of a purely intellectual pursuit. Accordingly, we could assume that what the chess master is doing is this: that he is consciously evaluating the options before him, calculating complex evaluations against one another, before finally selecting his move. Chess is the ultimate example of the complexity of the conscious mind. Right?

Wrong. In a beginner chess player, who must constanty remind himself of the rules, perhaps the conscious mind plays a large role in his play. But he’s not very good at the game, constantly missing correct ideas and miscalculating lines. The master is differentiated from the amateur by the sheer amount of unconscious processing that goes on while he plays a game. Positional concepts come to the mind unbidden; long-term projections are made completely intuitively; tactical combinations are pre-processed by tens of thousands of similar positions; candidate moves are selected on gut feeling alone. The conscious mind is relegated to the position of simply checking the work of the unconscious processes that are doing all of the heavy lifting – if even that.

The master is capable of feats that defy belief by those who are not strong chess players. Non-players are amazed by the sight of someone playing a game blindfolded, but tournament chess players consider this merely an “impressive” feat. Most strong tournament players are capable of recalling entire games from memory, and many of them can play blindfolded. I’ve been able to play blindfold chess since elementary school. How is this possible?

A famous 1973 study by William G. Chase and Herbert A. Simon sheds light on the matter. Previously, de Groot (1965) had devised a short-term recall task which involved showing a chess position to a player for 5 seconds and then asking them to reconstruct that position some time later. Masters were capable of doing this nearly perfectly, while they found a sharp dropoff below master skill. Crucially, this only applied for positions which are actually reasonable positions in a chess game; should the pieces be arranged on the board at random, masters showed no increased ability of recall. What is going on here?

A chess board has 64 squares, and each game begins with 32 pieces, evenly split between the players. The number of possible chess games and positions is literally astronomical. However, a position from a real game can be cut up into conceptual chunks. What piece pairings remain on the board? Which players have castled? What does the pawn structure look like? Each one of these questions has a short set of “reasonable” answers, easily captured by a player with sufficient experience. A non-player or weak player looking at a board may only recognize a 64-square checkerboard covered with 20 or so pieces. A strong player looking at the same position may recognize: this is a King’s Indian line, plus a couple of minor alterations as the players drifted away from theory. The master therefore does less conscious work by far.

In fact, de Groot had found that

Masters search through about the same number of possibilities as weaker players – perhaps even fewer, almost certainly not more – but they are very good at coming up with the “right” moves for further consideration, whereas weak players spend considerable time analyzing the consequences of bad moves. (Chase, Simon 1973)

The master has offloaded most of the work to an enormous network of unconscious processes which are finely-honed by experience and practice. He is doing less work, not more.

You – the conscious you – are not very good at anything.

Theme: Humans Post-Singularity

The new Millennium changed all that. We’ve surpassed ourselves now, we’re exploring terrain beyond the limits of merely human understanding. Sometimes its contours, even in conventional space, are just too intricate for our brains to track; other times its very axes extend into dimensions inconceivable to minds built to fuck and fight on some prehistoric grassland. So many things constrain us, from so many directions. The most altruistic and sustainable philosophies fail before the brute brain-stem imperative of self-interest. Subtle and elegant equations predict the behavior of the quantum world, but none can explain it. After four thousand years we can’t even prove that reality exists beyond the mind of the first-person dreamer. We have such need of intellects greater than our own.

But we’re not very good at building them. The forced matings of minds and electrons succeed and fail with equal spectacle. Our hybrids become as brilliant as savants, and as autistic. We graft people to prosthetics, make their overloaded motor strips juggle meat and machinery, and shake our heads when their fingers twitch and their tongues stutter. Computers bootstrap their own offspring, grow so wise and incomprehensible that their communiqués assume the hallmarks of dementia: unfocused and irrelevant to the barely-intelligent creatures left behind.

The Singularity is the hypothetical moment at which technological progress exceeds our predictive ability. The name is an analogy with a singularity in physics (or any of the other fields which use the term).

In the example of a black hole, we know that as the volume of an object shrinks, its density must increase, as long as it doesn’t lose any mass. The compressing center point of a black hole, “punched out” from the surrounding universe by an event horizon, is sometimes described as having a finite mass but zero volume – and therefore infinite density. The nature of this object makes it impossible for us to say for certain how the physical laws apply to it.

Futurists and techno-cultists of all stripes have long recognized the potential of a runaway intelligence process: an exponential explosion in machine intelligence leaving anything recognizable in the dust. Such an intelligence would, in this conception, be as superior to us as we are to chimpanzees, but even more alien. In the same way that a black hole leaves us unable to determine the physical nature of the singularity at its core, a future dominated by a machine superintelligence is so radical to us that we struggle to understand even the scope of change that it would bring about. (Excellent science fiction writers like Watts can achieve this somewhat, but they’re still just guessing.)

Of course, the Singularity is a hypothetical event. But if you believe in the inevitability of a machine superintelligence, in some form – as I do – then it’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that humans need not apply.

A human would be no more capable of understanding the thought process of a Singularity-tier machine intelligence than his dog is able to understand what he’s doing when he files his taxes.

Maybe you’re skeptical. This radical change is alien to you, with no context giving you the ability to simulate it. That’s fine. Humans have undergone many analogous changes in the past – imagine a Paleolithic hunter gatherer predicting the complex social relationships of a late Bronze Age society, with city streets, mud brick houses, organized religion, and systematic food production technologies like agriculture, animal domestication, and selective breeding for both. Unthinkable. Perhaps he – brighter than the other members of his tribe – has some inkling that these wild cereals he harvests from the fields of the Levant could be bent to his will, or that these goats could be captured and bred in the safety of the village. Perhaps he has some inkling of a system for offloading memory into physical objects – tokens for economic exchange, notches on a piece of clay for counting – that his great-great-great-and-so-on-grandchildren would one day turn into a formal system of writing. But merely an inkling.

This process, this conceptual singularity brought about by technological change, has happened many times throughout history. The Neolithic Revolution, advancements in metallurgy, civilizational conquests spreading social strategies and technoligies by the sword, religious centralization from written language and later from long-distance communications, and at some point in this process we hit the gas with the Industrial Revolution. And there’s no way to take our foot off the gas now.

The very first sentence of Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto begins thus:

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

Perhaps it was! Disregarding his misguided bombing campaign, which could never have solved the problem even if he were correct, we humans of the future must accept a further principle: there’s no way back. The Industrial Revolution was only the beginning. Now we have vast interconnected economic systems, near-instantaneous global communications, satellites in orbit maintaining critical infrastructure, and a sort of high-latency hive mind growing ever more abominable by the year in the form of social media. As a common accelerationist refrain goes, derived from Robert Frost’s poem A Servant to Servants:

The only way out is through.

We go forward, consequences be damned, because humans know no other way. Humans aren’t even in charge of this process, and before long, we won’t even be the primary driving force for it.

Mind Uploading, Virtual Utopia

It had been scarcely two months since Helen had disappeared under the cowl. Two months by our reckoning, at least. From her perspective it could have been a day or a decade; the Virtually Omnipotent set their subjective clocks along with everything else.

She wasn’t coming back. She would only deign to see her husband under conditions that amounted to a slap in the face. He didn’t complain. He visited as often as she would allow: twice a week, then once. Then every two. Their marriage decayed with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope and still he sought her out, and accepted her conditions.

On the day the lights came down, I had joined him at my mother’s side. It was a special occasion, the last time we would ever see her in the flesh. For two months her body had lain in state along with five hundred other new ascendants on the ward, open for viewing by the next of kin. The interface was no more real than it would ever be, of course; the body could not talk to us. But at least it was there, its flesh warm, the sheets clean and straight. Helen’s lower face was still visible below the cowl, though eyes and ears were helmeted. We could touch her. My father often did. Perhaps some distant part of her still felt it.

Once the machines are in control, why bother sticking around? Humans are natural pleasure-seekers. The seeking out of increasing forms of sensory novelty is in our blood. We are explorers not just in the physical sense – ancient homo sapiens sapiens spreading across the surface of the planet, conquistadors subjugating a new continent, expert sailors exploring and charting the open seas – but in a way that is much more abstract. The same circuits that allow a cat to explore a new home have been bootstrapped into abstract reward mechanisms for learning. A young teenage nerd exploring the world of Azeroth in World of Warcraft is using the same circuits as an ancient hunter-gatherer exploring a new territory for sources of food, filtered through some primitive 2-dimensional screen with the benefit of some pre-recorded audio.

Virtual reality is a trend which has taken off in recent years, with primitive VR technology available to consumers at reasonably low cost. The simulation does not have to be particularly life-like. Symbolic abstractions, voxel systems like those in Minecraft, are more than sufficient for the brain to recognize objects and terrain. The brain understands. What’s more, it’s easily fooled. At some level, the user is aware that he is in a simulation, and that the goggles are merely a screen overlaying his visual field. And yet it is easy to find footage on YouTube of people panicking as a VR rollercoaster plummets into near freefall. Don’t forget that the experience isn’t out there – it’s in here, in your head, with you. A sufficiently complex representation, delivered directly to your senses, gives you experiences which are just as “real” to your brain as what you could experience in the real world, but they’re unhampered by silly rules like physics.

Virtual reality provides access to experiences which are unimaginable to modern humans. Science fiction authors have been writing about virtual reality since William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, with other major examples as well (like Star Trek).

Imagine:

It doesn’t matter to your brain at all that none of these experiences are taking place in the physical world. They are experiences nonetheless, capable of being encoded into memories, turned into long-term memory, even absorbed as unconscious ability in tasks before being applied in meatspace.

But for some, or many, of us, the real question may become: why go back? Why wake up when you’ve become indistinguishable from a god?

Post-Motivations

Jim had his inhaler in hand as we emerged from the darkness. I hoped, without much hope, that he’d throw it into the garbage receptacle as we passed through the lobby. But he raised it to his mouth and took another hit of vassopressin, that he would never be tempted.

Fidelity in an aerosol. “You don’t need that any more,” I said.

“Probably not,” he agreed.

“It won’t work anyway. You can’t imprint on someone who isn’t even there, no matter how many hormones you snort. It just—”

Jim said nothing. We passed beneath the muzzles of sentries panning for infiltrating Realists.

“She’s gone,” I blurted. “She doesn’t care if you find someone else. She’d be happy if you did.” It would let her pretend the books had been balanced.

“She’s my wife,” he told me.

For those of us who still choose to remain in meatspace, such humans would be somewhat disconnected from their existing reward-circuitry. We already live in such a world, to some degree: drugs can ameliorate (antidepressants for depression) or even eliminate (stimulants for ADD) the disadvantages of a particular brain. Humans have been inducing religious experiences with hallucinogens like psilocybin for a very long time. We have always understood that brains can be hacked by chemicals, although our understanding of this fact was primitive before the 20th century.

Now imagine living in a world where even the emotional drives are easily manipulated. Love potions, a mainstay of fantasy fiction, are not impossible. The right concoction of chemicals can induce feelings of love, religious ecstasy, blind hatred and aggression. A loving couple. An ecstatic monk. A remorseless supersoldier.

These are not dreams. These are inevitabilities.

Buckle up.

End of Part 1

Blindsight covers a lot of territory. In the next post, I’ll cover the concept that “Technology Implies Belligerence!”, a very convincing account of “xenopsychology”, along with analysis of the various types of transhumans, near-humans, and non-humans that appear in the novel.