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"Tell the chef, the beer is on me."
“ Games have the opposite problem: an elitism defined by the absence of taste, or simply by bad taste: an overweening concern with effective production of profit-generating emotional payoff that’s grown homogenous through the optimization of business practices and Metacritic scores. ”— Naomi Clark
(…being another reprint of a months-old Nowa Fantaskya column, because I’m still in Vancouver and haven’t yet had time to do my epic comparison of Fury Road and Kingsman)
I’ve been called a prophet now and again. Articles about neuron cultures running robots or power grids generally provoke a comment or two about the “smart gels” from my rifters trilogy. βehemoth is likely to get a shout-out with each new report of mysterious sulfur-munching microbes, deep in the bowels of hydrothermal rift vents. Recently The Atlantic posted a piece about Louis Michaud’s work on energy-generating tornadoes; readers of Echopraxia pricked up their ears.
I didn’t foresee any of it, of course. I just read about it back before it made headlines, when it was still obscured by the jargon of tech reports and patent applications. In fact, my successful “predictions”— submarine ecotourism, Internet weather systems, smart gels— are happening way sooner than I ever expected.
Predict the future? I can barely predict the present.
I’ve only made one “prediction” (although “insight” would probably be a better term) whose rudiments I haven’t stolen. I’m really proud of it, though. Screw those recycled factoids about head cheeses and vortex engines: I’m the guy who wondered if Consciousness— that exalted mystery everyone holds so dear and no one understands— might not just be some kind of neurological side-effect. I’m the guy who wondered if we’d be better off without it.
I may not be the first to pose that question— I’m probably not— but if I reinvented that wheel at least I did it on my own, without reading over the shoulders of giants. And the evidence in support of that view— the review papers, the controlled experiments— as far as I know, those started piling up after Blindsight was written. So maybe I did get there first. Maybe, driven solely by narrative desperation and the desire for a cool punchline, I threw a dart over my shoulder and just happened to hit a bullseye that only later would get a name in the peer-reviewed literature:
UTA, they call it now. “Unconscious Thought Advantage”. The phenomenon whereby you arrive at the best answer to a problem by not thinking about it. I like to think I got there on my own.
So you can imagine how it feels to stand before you now, wondering if it was bullshit after all.
The paper is “On making the right choice: A meta-analysis and large-scale replication attempt of the unconscious thought advantage” by Nieuwenstein et al. The journal is Judgment and Decision-Making, which I’d never heard of but this particular paper got taken seriously by Nature so I’m guessing it’s not a fanzine. And the finding? The finding is—
Actually, a bit of background first.
Say someone gives Dick and Jane a problem to solve— something with a lot of variables, like a choice between two different kinds of car. They’re both given the same data to work with, but while Dick gets to concentrate on the problem before making his decision, Jane has to spend that time doing unrelated word puzzles. The weird thing is, Jane makes a better decision than Dick, despite the fact that she didn’t consciously think about the problem. Conscious thought actually seems to impair complex decision-making.
I first encountered such findings almost a decade ago, while correcting the galleys for Blindsight; you can imagine the joyful dance my hooves tapped out upon the floor. In the years since, dozens of studies have sought to confirm the existence of the Unconscious Thought Advantage. Most have done so. Some haven’t.
Now along come Nieuwenstein et al. They wonder if those positive results might just be artefacts of sloppy methodology and small sample size. They point out a host of uncontrolled variables that might have contaminated previous studies— “mindset, gender, motivation, expertise about the choice at hand, attention and memory” for starters— and while I’d agree that such elements add noise to the data, it seems to me they’d be more likely to obscure a real pattern than create a false one. And though it’s certainly true that small samples are more likely to produce spurious results, that’s what statistics are for: A significant P-value has already taken sample size into account.
Still. Sideline those quibbles and look at what Nieuwenstein et al actually did. They used a much larger sample, applied stricter protocols. They avoided the things they regarded as methodological flaws from previous studies, reran the tests— and found no evidence of a UTA. No difference in effectiveness between conscious and nonconscious problem-solving.
It’s not a fatal blow. In fact, Nieuwenstein’s study actually found the same raw pattern as previous research: the responses of distracted problem-solvers were 5% more accurate than those of the conscious-analysis group. The difference just wasn’t statistically significant this time around. So even if we accept these results as definitive, the most they tell us is that nonconscious decision-making is as effective as the conscious kind. Consciousness confers no advantage. So the question remains: what is it good for?
The authors tried to talk their way around this in their discussion, arguing that “people form their judgments subconsciously and quickly, then use conscious processes to rationalize them”. They speculated that perhaps these experiments don’t really compare two modes of cognition at all, that both groups came to their conclusions as soon as they got the data. Whatever happened afterward— focused contemplation, or distracting word-puzzle— was irrelevant. It’s a self-defeating rationale, though. It’s not a defense of conscious analysis, only an acknowledgment that consciousness may be irrelevant in either case.
The jury remains out. A day after “On Making the Right Choice…” came out, the authors of the original, pro-UTA papers were already attacking its methodology. Even Nieuwenstein et al admit that they haven’t shown that the UTA model is false— only that it hasn’t yet been proven. And these new findings, even if they stand, leave unanswered the question of what consciousness is good for. The dust has yet to settle.
I have to admit, though, that Nonconscious Isn’t Any Worse doesn’t have quite the same ring as Nonconscious Is Better. Which, personally, kind of sucks.
Why couldn’t they have gone after my smart gels instead?
Me, that is. In reference to a couple of essays that have gone live over the past 24 hours.
I haven’t had a lot contact with the good folks over at The Canadian Science Fiction Review— I don’t even know why they call themselves “Æ”, now that I think of it— but over the years I’ve got the sense that they like my stuff (well, a lot of it, at least— not even the strength of Æ’s fannishness was enough to get them to like βehemoth). Now they’ve posted “God and the Machines” by Aurora nominee Jonathan Crowe: a short essay on my short fiction, which among other things deals with the question of why everybody thinks I’m so damn grimdark when I’m actually quite cuddly. (Thank you, Jonathan. I was getting tired being the only one to point that out.) (Also, great title.)
Crowe posits something I hadn’t considered: that I don’t write the darkest stuff out there by any means, but it seems darker because I use Hard-SF as the delivery platform. I serve up crunchy science souffle, but I serve it with a messy “visceral” prose that “bleeds all over the page”. It’s a contrast effect, he seems to be saying; the darkness looks deeper in comparison to the chrome and circuitry that frames it. (Also, while those at the softer end of the spectrum tend to lay their nihilistic gothiness at the feet of Old Ones and Tentacle Breathers, I tend to lay it on the neurocircuitry of the human brain. My darkness is harder to escape, because— as the protagonist of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” once reminisced— “You can’t run away from your own feet”. Something to think about, anyway.
It’s a good read. You should check it out.
The other essay is not about me but by me, and it just went up today over at Aeon. It’s basically a distillation of ideas and thought experiments from various talks and short stories and blog posts I’ve made over the years, mixed in with some late-breaking developments in Brain-Machine Interface technology. It explores some of the ramifications of shared consciousness and multibrain networks. (Those who’ve read my recent exercise in tentacle porn won’t be surprised that those ramifications are a bit dark around the edges).
In contrast with my experience of “God and the Machines”, I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from “The Bandwidth of a Soul”, because (obviously) I wrote the damn thing. Surprisingly, though, I did learn things. I learned that it’s not called “The Bandwidth of a Soul” any more. I’m not quite sure what it is called: the visible heading reads “Hive Consciousness” but the page itself (and all the twitter links feeding back to it) are titled “Do We Really Want To Fuse Our Minds Together?” (I guess this is just something that magazines do. A couple of years back I wrote an autobiographical bit about flesh-eating disease for The Daily; its title morphed from “The Least Unlucky Bastard” into “I Survived Flesh-Eating Bacteria: One Man’s Near-Death Experience With The Disease Of Your Nightmares”.)
I also learned that the staff of Aeon might feel the need to tip-toe around references to public figures— at the expense of what was, IMHO, one of the better lines in the piece. You will find it at the end of the following paragraph:
I’m not sure how seriously to take [the Cambridge Declaration]. Not that I find the claim implausible – I’ve always believed that we humans tend to underestimate the cognitive complexity of other creatures – but it’s not as though the declaration announced the results of some ground-breaking new experiment to settle the issue once and for all. Rather, its signatories basically sat down over beers and took a show of hands on whether to publicly admit bonobos to the Sapients Club. (Something else that seems a bit iffy is all the fuss raised over the signing of the declaration ‘in the presence of Stephen Hawking’, even though he is neither a neuroscientist nor a signatory. You almost get the sense of a card table hastily erected next to Hawking’s wheelchair, in the hopes that some of his credibility might rub off before he has a chance to roll away.)
You will not find it over at Aeon, though; that last sentence disappeared from the final draft. Obviously the Card Table Lobby has no sense of humor.
I’d also like to give a shout-out here to neuroscientist Erik Hoel, out of Giulio Tononi’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was his back-of-the envelope calculations that generated the bandwidth comparison between smart phones and corpus callosums. I credited the man in-text but that line also seems to have been cut.
Other than that, though— and allowing for the Aeon’s editorial preferences (they like commas; they don’t like hypertext links)— it’s pretty much all there. They even left my Morse-code-orgasm joke intact.
So check that out, too. You’ll get all the neuroscientific speculation I ever put in any of my stories, without having to wade through all that noodly fiction stuff.
Some of you may have noticed that Echopraxia made it onto the longest short list in SF a few weeks back: the ballot for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. On the plus side (for me), it’s one of those jury-selected deals, so it’s not a popularity contest like the Hugos. (These days, it’s an especially big deal to not be like the Hugos.) On the minus side, well, there are 15 other finalists, almost all of whom are more famous/accomplished than me. So there’s that.
I didn’t mention it at the time, because on its own it would have made for a pretty insubstantial blog post. Plus there was another impending nom that was embargoed until— actually, until just last night, and I figured the post might be a bit more substantive if I stacked to two of them together. So: Echopraxia also made it onto best-novel final ballot for the Auroras, which consists of a much-more-manageable 5 nominees but which is kind of a popularity contest. Plus the competition is generally more famous/accomplished than me. (Like I’m gonna beat William fucking Gibson. Right.) As chance would have it, this year’s Auroras are being presented at SFContario, where I’m supposed to be serving as both Guest of Honour and Toastmaster. I’ve never been a toastmaster before. I’m still\not entirely sure what one even is. Assuming it’s not some kind of fetish thing revolving around baked goods, I gather it has something to do with presenting the Auroras. I should probably check with the concomm about stepping down, to avoid a conflict of interest.
I am gratified to see certain finalists in other categories, though: you could certainly do worse than vote for Sandra Kasturi’s Chiaroscuro Reading Series in the Best Fan Organizational category, for example. And if Erik Mohr doesn’t win for Best Artist there’s little justice in the world.
Anyway. I figure my chances of winning either prize are somewhere between low and negligible— but that’s okay, because I just hit a bullseye in something else without even trying. To wit:
“People talk about the eyes,” he continued after a bit. “You know, how amazing it is that something without a backbone could have eyes like ours, eyes that put ours to shame even. And the way they change color, right? The way they blend into the background. Eyes gotta figure front and center in that too, you’d think.”
Guo shook his head. “It’s all just— reflex. I mean, maybe that little neuron doughnut has its own light on somewhere, you’d think it would pretty much have to, but I guess the interface didn’t access that part. Either that or it just got— drowned out…”
—Me, on this very blog, April 30, 2015.
Octopuses can mimic the color and texture of a rock or a piece of coral… But before a cephalopod can take on a new disguise, it needs to perceive the background that it is going to blend into. Cephalopods have large, powerful eyes to take in their surroundings. But two new studies in The Journal Experimental Biology suggest that they have another way to perceive light: their skin. It’s possible that these animals have, in effect, evolved a body-wide eye.
Carl Zimmer, New York Times, May 20, 2015
Here, we present molecular evidence suggesting that cephalopod chromatophores – small dermal pigmentary organs that reflect various colors of light – are photosensitive. … This is the first evidence that cephalopod dermal tissues, and specifically chromatophores, may possess the requisite combination of molecules required to respond to light.
—ACN Kingston et al, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015
…our data suggest that a common molecular mechanism for light detection in eyes may have been co-opted for light sensing in octopus skin.
—Ramirez and Oakly, Journal of Experimental Biology, May 15, 2015
Beat them by two weeks.
Okay, so maybe not an absolute bullseye. That little fiblet I wrote went on to describe octopus sensation as involving “this vague distant sense of light I guess, if you really focus you can sort of squint down the optic nerve, but mostly it’s— chemical. Taste and touch.” My focus was on the arms, those individually self-aware arms, and I explicitly claimed that “they don’t see”. Pretty much everything was chemical and tactile. But it was still pretty close to a bullseye—in my attempts to downplay vision and outsource everything to the arms, I described the whole pattern-matching thing as a reflex which didn’t really involve the eyes at all. There was no real insight in that— it’s not as though I’ve been following the octopus literature with any kind of eagle eye— but to me, that’s what makes it cool. I threw a dart, blindfolded; just hitting the board is an accomplishment. And now that actual data are in, I can tart up the final draft with some actual verisimilitude before sending it off to Russia.
I love it when the complete lack of a plan comes together.
Oh, also: some cool rifters fan art from “Toa-Lagara” I stumbled across on Deviant Art. I’ll post it in the appropriate gallery once I get permission from the artist.
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