Marine Biologist Interview | Octopuses, Playful Orcas, and Corporations Are More Dangerous Than AI: A Conversation with Ray Nayler



The marine biologist, born in Quebec, has been assigned for 19 years to quite a few countries in Asia and Eastern Europe by the US State Department and is currently a consultant to the Federal Atmospheric and Oceanographic Agency (NOAA) on the establishment of marine protected areas, Ray Nayler He wrote his first novel, mountain in the seaHe wrote the year 2022 in his adopted country. A growing fascination with the intelligence of octopuses (like the one that created a proto-underwater civilization in her book and with which a scientist and a very humanoid android try to communicate) are only part of the elements that emerge in this long conversation, at the Celsius festival in Aviles, in which she explores everything from the misconception we have about artificial intelligence to alleged orca attacks on yachts.

Q: Was the main motivation for writing your book out of frustration with how easy it is for humans to communicate with aliens in science fiction, or out of interest in the intriguing intelligence of octopuses?

A: I think what came first is the idea that science fiction in general takes the idea of ​​alien communication less seriously than it should. As translators know, even communication between languages ​​can be very difficult, let alone communication even in the same language in the moment we’re in! It turns out that he watched the movie Access and I love him a lot. If you invent an alien, you can invent how it communicates, and then it’s easy. But I thought, “What if I try to do something with real beings on planet Earth?” I chose the octopus because it has always fascinated me and seems to me to be one of the most likely candidates for a species that might one day evolve to have complex symbol-based communication, which is what distinguishes humans from other animal communication. It’s what allows for abstraction, to get away from the present moment, and to tell stories about things that aren’t…

s. Accessthe movie, and the Ted Chiang story on which it is based, does an incredibly difficult job that it also does in the book: turning deciphering a form of communication into a narrative plot.

R. They did a great job starting with something as difficult as Difficulty in Communication, it’s one of my favorite movies. One of the things missing in science fiction today is scientists as characters. And I wanted to do that, astronauts or adventurers but dedicated science scientists. And they talk about it a lot mountain in the sea, but that’s the way science is done, not joking individual genius. This is the challenge, showing people trying to solve a complex problem and trying to create an interesting plot.

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Q: I don’t know if you have read Chaos heirsby Adrian Tchaikovsky: There is also first contact between humans and a type of super-intelligent octopus resulting from a terraforming experiment.

A: No, although I’ve heard good things about it, and haven’t read Ted Chiang’s original story: I avoid it, because as a writer I’m a sponge and consciously try to keep my firewall up and not read too much science fiction to maintain my individuality. I read a lot of scientific works because my goal is to bring new things to the genre.

Q: You alluded to two works on the intelligence of octopuses, Sly Montgomery and Peter Godfrey Smith, in fact. But we also have a documentary on Netflix What did the octopus teach me?I don’t know if this discussion among scientists is serious or joking about whether octopuses have an extraterrestrial origin … There seems to be a wave of interest around the capabilities of mollusks. because?

A: It’s hard to see why. Sometimes a lot of people invent the same thing at the same time because it’s all in the air, in the spirit of the time, for that to happen. It’s a fascinating animal: it evolved independently for 500 million years, our last common ancestor is a flatworm, and the result is two intelligent creatures, very different but sharing your curiosity about the world. The octopus is interesting because although it is very strange and different, with a completely different brain and neurological structure, we are very similar to it. It has even developed humanoid eyes that allow you to make eye contact.

Q: But let’s put some distance: At one point you highlight the capabilities of these animals but you also highlight that they are preventing them from developing a civilization: that their short life span prevents them from associating with their peers. Which explains as far as humans have allowed us to do so.

A: This is an interesting thought experiment. I think it is difficult for us as humans to understand how intelligent an octopus is. And I’m talking about the real species of octopus that exist on planet Earth, not this invented species in the book. You have to imagine that every human appears in a forest, without any contact with other humans and has only two years to learn how to live. Octopus does this. It floats on the ocean current after hatching until it sinks to the bottom and is forced to survive. Without any transmission of knowledge between generations, but not just instinctively, because each impulse adapts to its own conditions. If they end up in a sandy area but where humans split coconuts in half, they take them and use them as shelter. Are we smart enough to understand this intelligence? We’ll see what they can do if they can pass on their culture from one generation to the next, breaking down those biological barriers and forming a community.

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Q: A character in the book says that we may be the only ones who can call ourselves Homo, but we are not the only ones on the planet.

A: We are increasingly realizing that most animals are sentient beings. They are not a machine. We have to start more that our intelligence is just another type of intelligence that exists on Earth. And the special ability we got is really the evolution of human language.

Q: By the way, did you hear about orcas attacking yachts in the Strait of Gibraltar? At first they said it was the one, then this behavior seemed to catch on.

A: Yes, of course. But this orca behavior isn’t really new. It has also been observed off the coast of North America. There were killer whales that crippled the boats. This usually happens when they are teenagers, and I think interpreting these incidents as attacks might be a bit premature. Many scientists think it could actually be a game played by juvenile orcas, who did this to keep the boats drifting near them longer so they could interact and continue playing. I think we kind of offer our own ideas about orcas and what they do. One of the ideas, that a lot of connections is wrong projection, from mountain in the sea.

Q: We talked about octopuses, which is what caught your book’s attention the most. But another central component is the threat of the merger of AI and large companies.

A: But the artificial intelligence that I propose in the book is very different from the models we now call artificial intelligence. In fact, I think describing them is a egregious misuse of the term. There is no artificial intelligence in the modern world. ChatGPT has no brains. It is a series of linguistic models that, through a series of logic gates, try to predict what the next word in a sentence should be. It’s a complex program but there’s nothing there, a no-brainer. Intelligent life is basically about being future-oriented to achieve its survival. ChatGPT is not self-replicating. It is disappointing for programmers and scientists working on the problem of artificial intelligence that getting people interested in what we do is a misnomer of language models as artificial intelligence. It is not a neural network. But man invented artificial intelligence a long time ago, you know?

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(…)

They are called companies. They have a purpose that is not necessarily good for human development. They are practically immortal. They parasitically use human minds to advance their own goals. They are completely unconcerned about its impact on the environment. They are programmed only to be interested in profit. And we’ve let them take over a lot of our structures and that, you know, sounds hyperbolic, but it’s absolutely true. They are collectively aware and their goals are not the same as those of someone who is just trying to live in the good world. Yes, I’m afraid in many ways of the outcome of the artificial intelligence we’ve created, corporate intelligence. But I’m not worried about some supercomputer suddenly becoming sentient. It is a distraction from the real problem.

Q: Zuckerberg and Musk…

R. I’m not too surprised they talk about things like that. Because they are two exploitative individuals, salesmen with very little real knowledge of engineering or anything else, simply using other people’s minds to further their supposed genius. They are entrepreneurs and parasites on the genius of others.

Q. Hell on Earth is a big book for the industrial fishing boat. Their concern about what happens to them is reflected here

c. We are at a time when we must change the perception of what is realistic. Being realistic does not mean accepting that there is constant conflict between nations and that some will try to dominate others. What is realistic today is to consider the real limits of the environment, and what needs to be done to prevent this real world from decomposing, which is a collection of living and non-living things with their own purposes, which are different from humans and which we can destroy, as we do with poaching. Being a realist doesn’t mean resigning yourself to the fact that the economy is trying to make the most profit even if they destroy our common environment: you can’t choose between having a good life and destroying the planet or living a finite life and saving the environment. Being realistic is about finding ways to have a good life that don’t destroy the planet. Think, realistically, about how we must adapt human activity to fit the limitations we have in the real world.

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Q: Finally, are you familiar with the Spanish expression “to get lost more than an octopus in a garage”?

a. no. How big. I think that’s great.

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