Consciousness, Chinese Rooms and the emergent property of Treyr

When I started researching for Monastery, I found myself dipping back into areas I hadn’t thought about since sixth form.  At the time I ended up choosing English Literature as a university course but, for a long time in my teens, I was intent on studying Artificial Intelligence (AI).  I was one of those indecisive A-Level students that had selected both Maths and English.  One of my teachers suggested that I look into philosophy. Taking his advice, I read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  It was short (which is good for a teenager) and I thought I could understand the questions that were being posed. Then I started reading History of Western Philosophy and didn’t last two chapters. In hindsight, I know I didn’t really ‘get’ philosophy.  I like to think I’m catching up now, mind.

I’m not worried that I never went down the path to a philosophy degree, for I wasn’t ready and I would have hated it.  There’s still a little bit of regret, though, for not following the AI track.  I chose English because I repeatedly got good marks in it. After all, we can’t find the principle of the path-of-least-resistance all the time. Plus, the real reason was that I’d always wanted to be a writer.

Researching AI for the book meant I inevitably came across the philosopher John Searle’s thought experiment: ‘‘The Chinese Room’.  Here’s a link to it, so I won’t explain it in detail but, in summary, Searle imagines a man in a sealed room, being handed words on pieces of paper and translating these into Chinese characters using a book or some other system, then pushing them back out.  From the outside the room, it looks like he can understand Chinese.  From the inside, we know that he’s just following instructions.

This thought experiment was Searle’s response to a strand of AI that believes it is possible to produce a machine that can think and understand like a human being (and could be tested using the ‘Turing Test’).  Searle calls this ‘Strong AI’, as opposed to ‘Weak AI’, which is concerned with developing useful tools for pattern recognition and suchlike and using a computational approach to better understand the human mind.  His key point regarding the impossibility of Strong AI is that computers deal in ‘syntax’ (i.e they are ‘coded’) but human understanding is all about ‘semantics’ (they get the ‘meaning’).

Of course, there have been endless responses to the Chinese Room and counter-responses and counter-counter-responses.  However, perhaps because it’s quite an elegant idea, or perhaps because of complex reasons beyond our current understanding of academic debate, it still keeps cropping up.  Having read widely concerning the Chinese Room, I do believe the thought experiment itself is flawed and not reflective of how AI might work.  However, I do believe that an AI would never have consciousness in the sense that human beings understand it.  Simply, they would not be human so they couldn’t.  You could respond (and some have) that this is the point of the ‘A’ in AI but that just takes us into Weak AI territory.

For Monastery, I was in a quandary.  I knew I wanted this to be ‘hard sci-fi’, in the sense that it doesn’t break any significant rules of physics.  So, humanity has hit the limits of the light-engines, can’t escape the solar system, hasn’t rigged up a wormhole, hasn’t developed time travel.  But they developed (or allowed to evolve?) these superior machine intelligences. And these machine intelligences need to be exciting, to send a little shiver down your spine, like a HAL or a Wintermute.

Since reading all these cognitive science, AI and philosophy articles and books, I’ve come to the one conclusion: each author will vehemently argue a position based on what they learned in their mid-twenties and their mid-twenties alone.  So, I’m going to adopt the same rule.  I was studying systems thinking at that time.  So, from a systems thinking perspective (which, incidentally, is the most coherent response to the Chinese Room), consciousness is nothing more than an emergent property of the mind system – just one of those things that occurs when you have an appropriate number of neurons, in an appropriate configuration with appropriate properties.  (You can see where I got the name from.)

So, this got me thinking about what emergent properties might a Configuration have?  And that’s where the concept of treyr came in. It’s a difficult concept to explain, in the same way that explaining human consciousness to a machine would be difficult, but we can make a broad approximation.  In essence, treyr is the phenomenon where a Configuration experiences multiple near futures (and even a few distant futures) all at the same time.  This is a result of their continually cascading models of reality. I like to think it keeps the AI element in the book still interesting, while not upsetting Searle too much (and he’s a VERY grumpy man, so I was relieved about that).

I’m still reading about AI, Philosophy of Mind and emergentism.  Keep checking back – I’ve got a few more of these posts still to write I think …

Eee PC – goodbye to a legend!


I know … look at it! Bless. It’s only a wee little thing. But I’m afraid it’s no more.  It’s finally gone to the digital graveyard in the bottom drawer of the spare room, buried amid the coiled cables of its digital ancestors.  Coiled cables that may return, like a mythic triumvirate of kings, to prove that nothing will destroy the names of Parallel, Serial and Null-Modem.

And I’ve not made the choice lightly.  It’s been a wrench.  That Eee PC had been a trusty writing tool for me for nearly six years now. I even did some coding on it – wrote my wife’s website on it, started designing an overly complicated spying game on it and started a few other (shelved) projects.  Yes, that Eee PC could run a local LAMP stack.  It did it pretty well as well. But it got too slow.  Website design outpaced that tiny 7″ screen.  You ever tried to use Google Docs on a 7″ Eee PC?  You get about an inch of workable screen.

I know there are people out there who hated the Eee. I can understand why, as well. If you’re sat at home, waiting for it to chug through a picture-heavy news site, it was quite a wearying experience. If you wanted to work with pictures or (God forbid!) video, you were struggling.  Even, if you had to run any kind of serious word processor, you had to manage your expectations.  That was why I worked with the basic text editor.

But I don’t think these Eee-haters have ever commuted by train. That’s where it came into it’s own.  It was light, it was small, it was cheap.  You could type without getting your elbows in your neighbour’s face. You could carry it in your bag without needing to bulk up on whey powder and skinless chicken. You could have it stolen safe in the knowledge that your thief was going to struggle to make any money from it.

Nearly all of Monastery was written on that little Eee.  Dozens of little txt files written on the train, all saved locally (no need for wifi).  Then I’d email them to myself later on. Backup and transfer at the same time!

However, I’ve replaced it at last with something whose battery doesn’t leak away within five minutes and where I can at least surf the internet on the sofa.  I went with ‘light’ as being the major factor (no netbook was ever as light as the the Eee) and also cheap, so it had to be a ChromeBook.  One of the cheapest ones, mind – I’m not going to push the boat out!  I know, I know, I’m a cheapskate.  But if it works, it works. Can’t justify giving up my hard earned pounds to pay for some overly-tanned Apple brand manager to pay for his fourth yacht.  And I’ve had it Windows, so never going back there again.

Writing this post on the ChromeBook, in fact … fingers crossed it lasts me another six years!!

Writing science fiction – imperial or metric units?

These are the little problems that you hit when you’re trying to write sci-fi. It’s quite often not about the epic narrative arc or the coherent vision for the future; it’s all about the mundane stuff. What do people drink when they need to wake up of a morning? Are colds now extinct? Do people still celebrate Christmas? What’s an appropriate term of endearment?

One of the ones that I battled with for a while was the ‘Metric vs Imperial’ debate. I was half tempted to give up on it totally and make up my own units but that quickly retreated from that complicated little idea. The whole point of words – especially words in fiction – is that they spark off the appropriate images and connotations in a reader’s mind (and I’d given myself enough of a headache by creating a brand new military ranking system). The more shorthand you can use, I think, to achieve this the better, hence the ubiquitous rule about chopping out any adjectives and adverbs.

In the brilliant TV Tropes site they suggest it’s most common to use metric system for science fiction and imperial units for fantasy. There’s no real rational reason for this, of course, beyond a ‘feeling’ that metric sounds more futuristic.

I thought I’d check what other classic science fiction authors have done in the past, so picked a few books at random off my book case.  Arthur C Clarke goes with ‘kilometres’ and ‘metres’, Iain M Banks has ‘kilometres’.  But Larry Niven had ‘miles’, which surprised me. Neal Stephenson (for Anathem) has gone for ‘miles’ and – I love this one – ‘paces’ for his ‘metres’ equivalent.  But then Anathem is the kind of book that needs this, I think.

There may be a UK vs US writers divide here … or it might be a ridiculously small sample size.  I’ll let you decide.

Anyway, in the end, I went with metric.  It still feels correct, more futuristic.  What I couldn’t find myself doing was denoting smaller sizes in centimetres, though. I’m not sure why … but just it just felt wrong, to describe something as ‘thirty centimetres high’. That was when I itched to be able to write ‘about a foot’ again!

Ghirde n.

Just finished setting up my blog site and this is the first post.  I’ve selected my blog header image – a cropped corner of a shot of Titan from Cassini (added it in below in full).

This picture gives me ghirde. It was the picture that first made me think up the word. I knew that I needed to invent a word for that feeling. So many of the moons on the solar system are finely detailed, pitted, scored and … well, a little dead really. Titan, with its complete cloud-cover, seems to be hiding something. It makes me want to peek below that cloud layer and see the methane lakes …

Cool Titan