The Conscious Interview with Madeline Ashby

Today, I con­scious­ly inter­view author/futurist/awesome pan­el com­pan­ion Made­line Ash­by. Please note that the bulk of my ques­tions are refer­ring to her pre­vi­ous nov­els vN and iD, and not her upcom­ing work Com­pa­ny Town, for the sim­ple fact that it won’t be released for a few months yet. Rest assured, I’m putting in an order now.

The offi­cial bio:

Made­line Ash­by

Made­line Ash­by is a sci­ence fic­tion writer, strate­gic fore­sight con­sul­tant, ani­me fan, and immi­grant. She is rep­re­sent­ed by Anne McDer­mid & Asso­ciates, and IAM Sports & Enter­tain­ment. She has been a guest on TVO’s The Agen­da mul­ti­ple times. Her nov­els are pub­lished by Angry Robot Books. Her fic­tion has appeared inNature, FLURB, Tesser­acts, Imag­i­nar­i­um, and Escape Pod. Her essays and crit­i­cism have appeared at Boing­Bo­ing, io9, World­Chang­ing, Cre­ators Project, Arcfin­i­ty, and Tor.com.

Describe your lat­est book in a tweet.

Com­pa­ny Town: “The Ter­mi­na­tor” meets “The Girl With the Drag­on Tat­too.”

Now, describe it as a movie pitch.

In a float­ing city, on a dying ocean, one all-too-human woman hunts a post-human ser­i­al killer bent on chang­ing the course of his­to­ry.

Both vN and iD (the first two nov­els in the ongo­ing Machine Dynasty series) are told from the robot’s point of view, an idea that upon reflec­tion I’m rather aston­ished hasn’t been used more than it has. What made you want to take the side of the intel­li­gent toast­er?

I was real­ly tired of sto­ries about how fuck­ing spe­cial humans are. You know, how great Bel­la Swan is sup­posed to smell, and stuff like that. She smells great because she’s meat. I want­ed to tell a sto­ry in which the humans were meat.

You ref­er­ence (both direct­ly and indi­rect­ly) a large num­ber of genre pre­de­ces­sors in your nov­els. What were the works that inspired you to begin your series?

Hon­est­ly? I had the idea while watch­ing Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Com­plex. It’s an ani­me from the ear­ly part of this cen­tu­ry. At the time, I was also read­ing a great deal about 3D print­ers and self-repli­cat­ing machines, and work­ing on a degree in cyborg the­o­ry. So it all came togeth­er in my head.

There are many par­al­lels in your nov­els to slav­ery, the robots being bound to man through their pro­gram­ming. Was this a con­scious deci­sion on your part, or did the sub­text only come through lat­er?

No, it was pret­ty inten­tion­al. The word “robot” comes from the word for serf or slave. I knew that going in, and it’s acknowl­edged direct­ly in the first book. By a robot. As she’s tor­tur­ing some­one.

I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by the con­cept of know­ing that you’ve been pro­grammed to love mankind, as your robot Javier def­i­nite­ly is.

I meant it as a metaphor for those moments in rela­tion­ships where you know you’re falling for the wrong per­son, or falling into a self-destruc­tive pat­tern. We all have peo­ple we’re vul­ner­a­ble to who take advan­tage of us, roman­ti­cal­ly. For Javier, it’s a whole species.

You’ve obvi­ous­ly thought out the idea of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. In your opin­ion, is that a valid term? At what point does the arti­fi­cial become nat­ur­al?

Most of the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence that tries to emu­late human intel­li­gence does so because of its archi­tec­ture. The idea is that a bunch of com­plex sys­tems come togeth­er to cre­ate com­plex process­es and, ulti­mate­ly, com­plex thought. So while the struc­ture is arti­fi­cial, it emu­lates an organ­ic struc­ture. That’s the whole idea behind things like neur­al net­works. As for the moment at which some­thing arti­fi­cial becomes nat­ur­al, I think we can say that the emer­gence of autonomous cog­ni­tion with­in an arti­fi­cial sys­tem is pret­ty nat­ur­al. It’s a con­se­quence of capa­bil­i­ty, orga­ni­za­tion, archi­tec­ture, and data.  For exam­ple, when Dario Flo­re­ano was try­ing to sim­u­late evo­lu­tion in robots at the Swiss Fed­er­al Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, he found that they would lie to each oth­er about patch­es of ground they read as food sources. After the 50th gen­er­a­tion, some behaved altru­is­ti­cal­ly and oth­ers con­tin­ued to lie. It was a whol­ly organ­ic process with­in an arti­fi­cial­ly-cre­at­ed sys­tem.

Beyond your work as an author, you make a liv­ing as a futur­ist, which may make you unique­ly suit­ed to answer this: where do you stand on the whole con­cept of the sin­gu­lar­i­ty; that fabled moment when com­put­ers gain con­scious­ness? If the sin­gu­lar­i­ty comes to pass, is mankind screwed?

Tech­ni­cal­ly, the sin­gu­lar­i­ty isn’t the moment that com­put­ers gain con­scious­ness. [ED: my bad!] It’s the moment at which they become so intel­li­gent that they out­strip human intel­li­gence, and begin cre­at­ing their own. A lot of oth­er sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers (name­ly Peter Watts and Char­lie Stross) would tell you that con­scious­ness is actu­al­ly a hand­i­cap. There’s no guar­an­tee that a post-Sin­gu­lar super-intel­li­gence will be at all con­scious or even sen­tient. Try to imag­ine hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with, say, a can­cer­ous tumour that spans the entire globe. Think about how we treat can­cer, now. That’s what I imag­ine it being like.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to down­load our con­scious­ness into a com­put­er? And if so, would the per­son real­ly be the com­put­er, or would it be a fac­sim­i­le, the orig­i­nal now dead?

Again, I’m not sure con­scious­ness is real­ly the trick. That’s sort of like ask­ing whether a per­son who has had a stroke is the same per­son that they were before hav­ing it. Your con­scious aware­ness is real­ly only a fea­ture of your brain—it’s an oper­at­ing sys­tem sit­ting atop a lot of wet­ware and help­ing it to accom­plish goals and stay alive. More impor­tant­ly, the quest for orig­i­nal­i­ty is inher­ent­ly bound up in very old-fash­ioned, even patri­ar­chal ideas of author­i­ty and own­er­ship. It’s some­thing Barthes talks about in “The Death of the Author,” and I think a post-mod­ern under­stand­ing of con­scious­ness is ulti­mate­ly health­i­er and more for­giv­ing of human real­i­ties. Basi­cal­ly, there’s this idea that our minds are spe­cial snowflakes, and they’re real­ly not. From a neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy per­spec­tive, our brains are incred­i­bly plas­tic in nature, and they change all the time. “The Brain That Changes Itself” touch­es on this idea. So, whether or not the con­scious­ness that emerges with­in a mechan­i­cal struc­ture is actu­al­ly yours doesn’t matter—your own brain is dif­fer­ent from the way it was when you were an infant, or a child, or even in your twen­ties. And it will con­tin­ue to change as you age. There is no “you.” “You” are a work in progress. The best a com­put­er could save is a draft.

Com­ing up next: The Sub­con­scious Inter­view!