Peter Watts, a contemporary science-fiction writer from Canada, spoke to milk commissioning editor Olena about his career path from marine biology to sci-fi authorship. Blindsight touches on the topics of human nature and technology, approaching them from a philosophical point of view.
Peter was kind enough to share his thoughts and views on the thrilling problem of consciousness and its relation to intelligence that he has raised in his award-winning novel Blindsight. Because aliens don’t need to be human-like creatures or even multi-cellular organisms to ‘think’ strategically and conquer the universe, after all.
What made you change your career from using science as a marine biologist, to reflecting about science as a writer?
In fact, both those pursuits happened more or less in parallel; I first decided I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was five or six, and that I wanted to be a writer sometime between six and eight (I remember both moments as if they were just decades ago). I always wanted to do both; I started collecting rejections when I was still in high school, continued throughout the eighties while getting science degrees. Never got anything published until ’91.
What really switched me over into writing full-time was a growing disgust at the political nonsense infesting my research post at the University of British Columbia. I was working for a consortium that was studying the catastrophic collapse of certain marine mammal populations in the Bering and North Pacific. As it happened, those declines began shortly after the US commercial fishing industry moved into those areas and started hoovering up all the fish (tellingly, the declining populations were fish-eaters; marine mammals who fed mainly on plankton were still doing okay).
“I try to avoid making predictions of the future, because by and large they’re bound to be wrong… Blindsight was, I think, more or less a lucky guess”
As it also happened, the consortium got 90% of its funding from the US Commercial Fishing industry and various banks that funded them – and my boss didn’t want to antagonize the money. So instead of focusing on competition with commercial fisheries, we were talking about weird possibilities like ‘maybe the decline is due to a sexually-transmitted disease’!
So the decision was a lot less philosophical than you may have thought. Basically I quit in a huff.
In your novel Blindsight you bring up the subjects like consciousness, artificial intelligence, and evolution. Does the development of those concepts in your novel coincide with your predictions for the future?
I try to avoid making predictions of the future, because by and large they’re bound to be wrong (Blindsight was, I think, more or less a lucky guess). I admit I’m a bit surprised that nobody’s yet got around to actually building e-wildlife of the sort I described in Maelstrom, though. As a coding exercise it should be straightforward; just build some genes into a self-replicating program, add a random number generator to simulate the effects of mutation, and set it free.
Granted, most coders want their programs to be better-behaved than that – you want your trojans and polymorphs to keep stealing credit card numbers or wrecking enemy centrifuges, not evolving off to follow their own agendas – but surely on a planet of 7.5 billion there must be some coders who just want to watch the world burn, who’d get off on jamming the internet up with all manner of pernicious weeds and predators even if – or even because – civilisation collapsed as a result.
“Non-conscious systems not only can learn, and converse, and prove theorems – they already do”
The main focus of the novel, as I understand it, is a problem of consciousness and intelligence. The aliens show the signs of intelligence without being conscious. What made you arrive at that conclusion?
I went into the project assuming that consciousness had to be good for something, or natural selection would have weeded it out. The novel was going to explore what that might be.
The problem was, I had this benchmark question I’d apply to any possible function for consciousness: would it be possible for a non-conscious system to do the same thing? And for every possible function – learning, social interactions, mediating skeletal-muscle motor conflicts – the answer kept being yes. Non-conscious systems not only can learn, and converse, and prove theorems – they already do. So while we might use consciousness for one or another of those things, consciousness is not necessary for them in the broader sense.
And the clock was ticking, and the book was becoming due and I still hadn’t come up with any human activity which could not, in theory at least, be done without conscious involvement. And at the same time I was learning about how many of the things we do, both simple and complex, that are already being done non-consciously. Sleepwalkers have sex, or drive across town and kill their in-laws. People wake up with the solution to complex mathematical and scientific problems fully formed in their brains, without any inkling of how they got there (that even happened to me, back in grad school). Even something as simple as deciding to move your finger seems to be non-conscious, insofar as the signal to move is already halfway down your arm by the time your conscious self “decides” to move it. Consciousness seems to follow the decision, not precede it. It’s a memo reporting on things already done.
“In hindsight, I seem to have just blindly tossed a dart over my shoulder and hit the bullseye entirely by accident”
It finally occurred to me that if consciousness actually served no useful function – if it was a side-effect with no adaptive value, maybe even maladaptive – why, that would be a way scarier punch-in-the-gut than any actual function I could come up with. It would be an awesome narrative punchline for a science fiction story. So I put it in.
Of course, not being any kind of neuroscientist, I had no doubt that I’d missed something really obvious, and that if I was lucky a real neuroscientist would send me an email setting me straight. At least I would have learned something. It never occurred to me that real neuroscientists would start arguing about whether consciousness is good for anything. In hindsight, I seem to have just blindly tossed a dart over my shoulder and hit the bullseye entirely by accident.
We’d like to thank Peter for taking the time to talk to us about his career, inspirations and the science behind his novel. If you’re interested to know how this all plays out in Blindsight, you can purchase the book here.