Saturday, May 14, 2016

On Blindsight (contains spoilers)

One of the many ways you can classify the books is whether they distract you from thinking or encourage you to think about something. Blindsight by Peter Watts, to me, falls in the second category.

There is that old discussion of what is intelligence about. Peter Watts tries to imagine intelligence without sentience - a thinking entity without an I that does the thinking. Blindsight, among other things, refers to that concept of an I which could be seen as an illusion distracting the individual from efficient acting. This reminded me of I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter which I've read recently. It has a different claim: that the possession of an I concept, even though it doesn't physically relate to anything, is the prerequisite of calling a being intelligent in the first place. I have to admit that it's pretty difficult to imagine intelligence without sentience, and such existence appears pretty dull to whatever I call "me". Nevertheless, it's an interesting possibility, and not being able to imagine something properly doesn't mean that it could never be true.

But that is not how the book begins. It begins with a story of a human who doesn't have empathy, due to an operation he endured as a child. He isn't even sure whether he can truly understand anything or whether he is just a human version of Chinese room - the construct which can provide correct answers to the outside queries without being able to explain what those answers could mean. The protagonist's disability became a blessing in disguise, turning him into an ideal "translator" between narrow specialists and the ordinary humans. He does it by tuning to the body language of those he translates from. Almost everything is seen through his eyes and told through his voice.

The protagonist has a dramatic past, including botched relationship and sad childhood memories. He sails back and forth between now and then during the narrative. Somehow, it made me think that perhaps our unhappiness is partially responsible for defining what we are. ("If we are not in pain, then we are not alive" - that's how the story begins). One side remark: notable that the author goes for describing a "traditional" relationship, while claiming that this kind of relationships already became old-style; I guess making a different choice here would be immensely more daunting task - after all, we, the readers, are still merely humans mostly living in the "real" world.

The world described by Watts - sometime in the future - doesn't feel warm and cuddly. For once, it has vampires, which are the product of genetic (re-)engineering, are said to be way more intelligent than any human but get a seizure whenever they see anything resembling a cross. (That last part doesn't make much sense from the rational point of view, but we have to take it as a given). They are held on drugs which both restrain them from their natural tendency to hunt warm-blooded human beings and help to overcome the cross impediment. The reason they exist is because people want problem-solvers smarter than them who would still not be machines. One of those vampires is heading the mission the protagonist is part of.

Also, there is a technocratic version of Paradise called "Heaven", where people can dream off the rest of their lives in the self-designed VR worlds. It's not uploading into the cloud: destroying the body also destroys the Heaven inhabitant. The protagonist's mother, whom he always calls by her first name, has left for that world. The protagonist's father is one of the few people on Earth who still do work (he is busy with planetary security). Those who choose "to not be a parasite" often become cyborgs, changing their minds and bodies. (Examples present in the mission crew). There is a bit of sad irony to realize that those who chooses to work do nothing else but benefit those parasites, but who wouldn't care, as long as it boosts their dopamine and serotonin levels. (Speaking about happiness).

The storyline is exponential: it starts slowly and then accelerates. An idea falls into the gravity field of the narrative, gets enshrouded by flesh and blood on the way, and eventually explodes due to overheating, leaving some charred remains in the aftermath. The non-sentient and superintelligent aliens, an advanced version of cosmic ants, are inhabiting a scary-looking artifact, devoid of any sense of beauty, but capable of almost anything. They cannot communicate with humans because there is nothing to communicate about. They can conjure "a collective I", but it's nothing but Chinese room to us. There isn't any individual on the other side. Every alien being is nothing but an efficient autonomous agent / data storage unit. The little crew of the human spaceship goes through lot of pain to get to that truth. The vampire storyline also has a resolving point, a bit rough if you ask me. Many questions are answered in the end, but not all of them, and the end itself feels rather a prolonged pause than a real conclusion. (There is a second book by Watts which seems to be playing in the same world, but I am not yet sure whether it's a sequel, a prequel or an alternate reality).

Unwelcome as that world appears, the book is worth reading, not only for that question about the nature of intelligence that it poses, but also for the insights into psychology of human interaction (the little isolated crew in stressful conditions being a suitable playground for that). I would rather not to provide more plot details, it's better to read the story.

But if human conscience, and culture with it, is a mere blindsight, and it would be possible to have a civilization of selfless intelligent beings, what would be their drive to move forward? The survival instinct alone? How did the ants arrive at the designs for their homes and are they ever going to improve them? I guess humanity needs a couple million years of sentience to answer these questions.