We're very pleased to announce that on 15th April, we were joined by Peter Watts for our inaugural AMA session in the WSIRN Community.
This was a text-based AMA session during which Peter answered questions ranging from why he switched over to a writing career from being a research scientist to the lessons we can learn from the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Members of the WSIRN community discussed topics which included consciousness, language, cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence, recommended books, writer's block, philosophy and neuroediting among many others!
In a long writing career spanning three decades, to the best of our research this was only Peter's fourth AMA, and the first one he has done outside Reddit.
If you're not part of the community, you still have a reason to be excited! The good news is that you can still read the entire Q&A transcript of the 2-hour-long AMA in this post!
In order to be a part of future AMAs and get a chance to talk to your favorite authors, become a part of the WSIRN community.
We'll be hosting new AMAs very soon, you can find News & Updates on Upcoming AMAs here.
In case you missed the newsletter, here are some links to Peter Watts’ fantastic works:
Q: Question by community member
C: Comment by community member
Q: I read your blog post about COVID-19 you wrote a month ago. Since we’ve had a month of data since then, what are some unexpected ways that you think COVID-19 will change the world?
Peter Watts: I'm less and less certain. The damn thing is all over the place: lethality seems to be still in the 1.5% ballpark, but R0 was 5.7 at last count. It is too early for any definitive responses. But it's a development within the past month that I find, well, ominous. The point is, the world has ground to a halt over something that's much milder than I was expecting (not that I'm any kind of expert).
I'd point out that here in Canada the politicians are already starting to brace us for food shortages, but for the fact that down in Ecuador there are literally bodies piling up in the streets. We've got it incredibly easy here.
This will pass. Other bugs will come down the pike, and they will be worse, and even if they're not the cumulative effect is going to keep hammering us.
C: Will we be better prepared for future Pandemics?
Peter Watts: The question is when we get a breather: will we take the lessons that have been forced upon us, and realize that we can live more modestly, that we can have clean skies, that we can cut back in the routine as well as the anomaly? Or will the usual suspects jump in and guide us back to greater consumption and greater economic growth?
Given that Alberta's premier responded to the crisis by increasing investment in the oil industry, I am not hopeful. But I don't know. I honestly don't know.
Q: You have worked in the video game industry. What does a science fiction author do for a video game? Best and worst aspects for an author?
Peter Watts: Video games. Hmmm. I'm working on one now, in fact. My first attempt for VR.
They definitely work out creative muscles you don't work out any other way. And the collaborative aspect is both a challenge and a joy when you spend most of your time working in solitary confinement. Believe it or not, some of the savviest people I've met work in that industry. When I did a gig for Capcom the first thing they did was show me an AV presentation on the use of fonts in media. One of the people on the factory floor was an engineer who knew Shakespeare. Another-- I think she was one of the artists-- taught stick-fighting at night. These are amazing people.
On the factory floor, that is. Almost universally, I've been amazed by those guys. The EPs? The CEOs? Not so much.
I've been part of some really exciting projects that ended up getting squashed because some suit thought there was too much subtlety in the alien, and can't we just, you know, turn it into some kind of Evil Yoghurt?
Q: I’m very curious about your perspective on the current generation of digital money and cryptocurrency technologies such as Bitcoin.
Peter Watts: I'm not enough of an expert to have a qualified opinion. I do have a question, though: as I understand it, blockchains function by keeping a record of all previous transactions in multiple locations, allowing for multiple points of verification. Seems to me this would inevitably make the chain longer and longer: at some point, it would be too big to manage efficiently. The whole thing might grind to a halt because of the sheer mass of the data object.
Obviously people have thought of this. The system continues to function. But I'm not entirely sure how. And I've met a few folks far savvier than me who regard cryptocurrencies as the 21st century's answer to Snake Oil.
But that's just me parroting other people. Like I said, I don't know enough to do more than ask dumb questions.
Q: I wonder who first suggested the definition of consciousness as 'a brain that models the world including itself' (or something like that)? You mentioned it in Blindsight which I believe was partially inspired by Metzinger. And now I stumbled upon it in the Selfish gene, a book of 1976 I guess.
Peter Watts: Interesting that you should mention The Selfish Gene. Blindsight got its genesis in an essay by Dawkins. Not that book in particular, but the afterword for a collection of biological essays Dawkins had edited. (I forget the title, sorry.)
In said afterword, Dawkins talked about the greatest outstanding mysteries of biology. Consciousness was at the top of the list. He pointed out how easy it was to imagine a meat robot that does all the same things we do, but without any subjective sense of self-- after all, natural selection acts on behaviours and traits, not "motives". It doesn't care whether you pull your hand away from the fire because it hurts, or because some sensor reports potential tissue damage, just so long as the hand moves. So what is consciousness for, exactly?
He was hardly the first person to raise that point of course, but I'm not very well-read so it was the first time I'd been confronted with it. And I couldn't come up with an answer either. This was years before I'd even published my first novel, and it's kind of stuck in the corner of my mind ever since.
C: Ooo, I recommend a book called Gateless Gatecrashers that answers that very question, but not in a way most would expect
Peter Watts: Gateless Gatecrashers. I will come back and copy that down when I get the transcript.
Q: This one might have been asked before, but I read through previous AMAs on Reddit and did not find an answer. Was the number of Fireflies in Blindsight a purely random number you came up with, or did it have some hidden meaning? (65,536)
Peter Watts: Not a hidden meaning, but nothing very profound either. I just drew a lat/long grid across an earth-sized sphere, figured out how widely I wanted the probes spaced at the equator, then counted the interstices. It's been 16 years, though. Please don't ask me to show my work.
C: It's the max number of 2 bytes :)
Peter Watts: Really? I must be smarter than I thought…Yeah. Let's go with that.
C: Wait, did you get this number just from the calculation of probes without knowing that it's 2 bytes? We live in a simulation, confirmed
Q: What other novels or non-fiction books do you highly recommend for a better understanding of consciousness/self-awareness?
Peter Watts: When I want to appear impressive, of course, I recommend "Being No One" by Metzinger, even though there are parts of that book I still haven't read. When I'm being more honest, though, I talk about "The Ego Tunnel", also by Metzinger, which is kind of a Being No One for Dummies, is far more accessible and comes with a couple of bonus chapters on the benefits of hallucinogenics.
Wegner's "The Illusion of Conscious Will" is also fascinating and accessible. Ramachandran's "Phantoms of the Mind" (or is it Brain?). Keep in mind these books are all ancient by modern standards. I have not kept up (and in any event, all the cutting-edge stuff appears in papers anyway, not books. Musk's Neuralink project fills me with equal parts dread and giddy laughter, for example.)
Q: I read that you started publishing when you finished graduate school. Can you talk about that a bit? What made you pick writing over research?
Peter Watts: I never really picked writing over research. I've wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 5 or 6. I decided I wanted to be a writer at 7 or 8. Those two imperatives bounced back and forth in my head my whole life; I ended up in the Science end of the campus because I knew shitloads of successful writers who'd never taken a course in creative writing, but I didn't know of any scientists who'd made it without a degree or two under their belts.
C: Good point. I picked art and science. Still riding both horses.
Peter Watts: I submitted stories to the magazines throughout most of the grad school. Never got anything accepted. Eventually, I ran out of degrees to get: and I was just packing up after my doctorate, telling a friend of mine that it was time to give up this stupid writing dream and buckle down in the real world when my first acceptance letter came in the mail. (For "A Niche".)
So I continued to (as you say) ride both horses. What kicked me into writing full time, though, was I got sick of the opportunistic politics of the consortium I was working for. We were ostensibly trying to figure out why marine mammal populations were crashing in the North Pacific, but 95% of our funding was coming from the US Fishing industry (whose factory ships, by a curious coincidence, had moved into the problem areas just a few years before those populations started crashing). As you can imagine, there were certain conflicts of interest.
I pushed back "working within the system for constructive change" as the sellouts say, for as long as I could. A year and a bit. Quit in a huff. I was now unemployed. What better time to try writing that novel I'd always wanted to write?
The rest is history.
Q: What critical piece of knowledge is missing, that would help change the world for the better? Or, what technology?
Peter Watts: I’m increasingly convinced that what we need to change to save the planet is ourselves. And I don't mean this in some woolly-minded kumbaya "we must all be less greedy and smell the flowers" kinda way, because that's not the way we're wired. I mean it literally. I mean, rewire Human Nature at the neurochemical level to immunize us against all those selfish-gene imperatives that helped us survive when we were at the mercy of our environment but have since flipped around so the environment is at our mercy.
C: “Rewire” how? Implants, drugs, therapy, …? Whatever does it take?
Peter Watts: There are precedents. People with Parkinson's Disease tend to be less religious than the norm. Lesions on the ventromedial prefrontal cortex make it easier to make utilitarian ethical decisions, to replace gut-level "morality" ("Nothing is more important than my baby!") with rational ethics ("Better to leave my baby to burn in that building, so I can save three other people on the second floor"). People who are clinically depressed are empirically more objective in matters of self-assessment and sussing out complex social situations. It's hard to think of a more telling indictment of our collective mindset than the fact that we take people who are demonstrably more objective than the norm and label them victims of a pathology.
C: Wow, that’s interesting. Also interesting is that you’re emphasizing rationality as a solution. Another might be some push (reward) to a combined honesty and generosity.
Peter Watts: (Yes, of course. My list is hardly exhaustive. And admittedly, my solutions veer towards the punitive. In my defense, it's almost impossible to go through life as a biologist and not be filled with chronic burbling rage at human shortsightedness and idiocy.)
C: Hmm, will such rewiring actually work? Usually, for any measure, there is a countermeasure.
C: But what would the potential downsides be?
Peter Watts: Potential down sides. There are bound to be many. (The usual suspects hacking our edited responses for a bigger market share, to cite an obvious example). But here's something to consider:
Estimates of planetary extinction rates I've seen range from 70,000 to 120,000 per year. That's the down side of continuing on the course we're on now. Not to mention rising seas, firestorms, methane bubbling out of the permafrost a solid eighty years earlier than the worst-case models predicted.
C: (Down sides: mind control by the bad guys, unanticipated consequences of messing with a way complex system, …. Still, really cool to discuss this.)
C: Then there's the solution from your short story with the Teresa hack. And that John Brunner also used in The Sheep Look Up
Peter Watts: Those are downsides. What you have to convince me is that the side effect of a little neuro editing will be worse than all that.
John Brunner is a personal hero to me. The Sheep Look Up is one of the two most seminal books in my life.
C: Is anyone actually working on this that you know of?
Peter Watts: Sort of. The brain lesion paper came out of Nature, I think. There's a move afoot to reclassify "clinical depression" as "depressive realism". Oh, and gut bacteria: we can alter memory formation, innate priorities, all sorts of things by reprogramming gut bacteria, which in turn tweak the brain via the Vagus nerve. So in that sense, people are working on this sort of thing all the time.
(As far as I know, though, nobody is working on putting all that stuff together to build a bug that rewires Human Nature into something less pathological, maybe something that can be spread through the water supply. If you don't count me writing the occasional story along those lines.)
Q: Did Half Life Alyx live up to expectations?
Peter Watts: I do not call it "Half-Life: Alyx." I call it "Half-Life: Pidgeworld." Because the first thing you see when you boot it up is this perfectly-rendered pigeon staring at you from the balcony railing. He behaves much as real pigeons do.
Later there are flocks of pigeons. They behave exactly as they should when you lob a pop can at them.
Having less free time than I would like, I have not proceeded very fair through Pidgeworld (I only got the flashlight this afternoon). But so far-- except for a couple of technical glitches-- I love it. It's so good to be back.
Fucking head crabs, though. Those new armoured ones? The one your bullets bounce right off unless you shoot their exposed ruby bellies? Hate those guys.
Q: When we think of AI, most laypeople think of a talking robot who can hold intelligent conversations. But the Captain onboard Theseus, a silent AI that permeates everything but seldom converses, is like an "unobtrusive God" as you aptly put it. Do you think as AI develops, it will fill and control our lives more silently, hiding in the background, rather than going the direction of talking Robots?
Peter Watts: My biggest near-term fear about AI is not that it will necessarily control our lives, but that it will simply give the usual suspects vastly greater powers to run our lives than they already have. Which is why I will shoot on sight anyone who tries to bring an Alexa into my home.
Q: Who are your favourite philosophers, and how have they influenced your work?
Peter Watts: Oh, man. My Humanities background is virtually nonexistent, so in all honesty, I'd have to shrug. On the science side, I've read Kuhn and Popper (and Hofstader, although that might be pushing it). I know what Plato's Cave is. I disagree with Descartes. But other than that, I'm just a biology guy. I don't even know enough to not answer the question.
C: Out of curiosity, in what way do you disagree with Descartes?
Peter Watts: His dismissal of the being-hood of other organisms. His belief that other creatures don't really writhe in pain when you gut them alive but are simply mechanisms with no subjective awareness.
I find that a profoundly destructive and profoundly anti-scientific position.
Q: Peter, from your blog and FB posts I've got an impression that you are somewhat a misanthrope. You don't like humans cause we impact nature. Is this correct or the impression is wrong?
Peter Watts: I don't know if you could call me a misanthrope when you get right down to it. I mean, would I really be so angry all the time if I didn't expect better of people, despite all evidence to the contrary? Doesn't my rage imply, I dunno, disappointment?
I think a true misanthrope might just shrug and say, "Fuck, what do you expect. Say hi to Triceratops for me." I'm not that guy. I think we can do better.
All that said, I find myself very sympathetic to the antinatalists.
Q: What (long format) book are you writing now / will be writing, and is it the book you'd like to write next?
Peter Watts: "Intelligent Design". Except I've been meaning to write it for ten years, and it was set ten years in the future, and of course C19 has necessitated that we all throw out our worldbuilding for near-future novels and start over. I don't know if it's the book I most want to write, but I remember what happened when I forced myself to write "Behemoth" before I was ready and I don't want the same fate to befall "Omniscience".
My former agent kept leaning on me to do All Sunflowers All The Time-- apparently "Freeze Frame Revolution" generated a fair amount of buzz and he wanted to cash in on that-- but I wasn't convinced it was as hot a property as he thought.
And he's not my agent now anyway, so it's kind of moot.
Q: How do you see us overcoming the limitations of language as our intelligence continues to grow/evolve? Do you see us speaking in clicks like the Hadzane, speaking some sort of gibberish, using hand gestures, or mixing multiple languages to better articulate ourselves rather than relying on one language quite like the characters in Blindsight communicate? I guess what I’m trying to ask is.. what is the future of language?
Peter Watts: You know how the little feral kids talked in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome when talking about the "spocklipse" and The Before Time? Kind of like that. And for pretty much the same reason.
If we somehow avoid that fate, though-- well, language itself is kind of a kludge. How do I describe the sight of, say, a jewelled iridescent beetle on a log? I break that image down into a series of grunts and phonemes, and those sounds provoke memories in your brain (not mine), and if I'm lucky the beetles in your experience look kinda like those in mine, and your memories of logs are roughly similar, and hopefully when I say "green" you actually imagine the same color I associate with that word and not with some color I might call "ochre". And then you cobble together an image that might or might not be close to what I'm trying to convey.
Wouldn't it be great if we could bypass all that, and just link our brains directly? And wouldn't it be great if we could do it in some way that didn't involve Elon Musk?
Q: Do you ever find yourself struggling with writer’s block? If so how do you overcome it?
Peter Watts: I'm struggling with it right now, in fact. You'd think I'd have plenty of time to write, plenty to write about. But I just keep hitting the damn refresh button on the realtime COVID kill-counter. As I understand it, that's a pretty common reaction these days.
I don't quite know how to fight it. I'll figure something out.
C: If I may offer my solution, I start from the end of the story and work my way backward! We almost always know how we want the plot to end, so it can be an easy way to go around writer's block.
Peter Watts: Oddly, Michael Swanwick says that's how he writes all his novels as a matter of course.
Disclaimer: For readability and clarity, we’ve needed to edit some of the questions, comments and answers. The full AMA will be temporarily available inside the community.