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Fiction Science Club

What octopus intelligence teaches us about AI and aliens

Are intelligent aliens living among us? A newly published novel just might lead you to think so — and in this case, the aliens aren’t visitors from another planet.

Instead, they’re octopuses, the eight-legged denizens of the deep that are celebrated in movies (including the Oscar-winning documentary “My Octopus Teacher”) and on the ice rink (thanks to the Kraken, the Seattle hockey team that’s getting set for its second NHL season.)

Ray Nayler, who wrote the novel titled “The Mountain in the Sea,” says he chose the octopus to serve as the designated alien for his science-fiction plot in part because it’s “a creature that has a structure totally different from ours, but in whom we recognize curiosity, which is what I think we find often most human in ourselves.”

Nayler doesn’t stop there: The promises and perils of artificial intelligence also figure prominently in the plot — in a way that sparks musings about how we’ll deal with AI, with kindred species on our planet, and perhaps eventually with extraterrestrial intelligence as well.

Dominic Sivitilli, a neuroscientist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington, says such musings are what led him to focus his studies on octopuses. “I suddenly had this model for what intelligence might look like, had it had a completely different evolutionary origin … possibly on another world, in another solar system,” he says. “And so they became a bit of a model to me for what extraterrestrial intelligence might end up looking like.”

Nayler and Sivitilli discuss animal intelligence, artificial intelligence and the prospects for cross-species communication in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science, technology, fiction and culture.

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Fiction Science Club

Scientist takes a trip to the frontiers of consciousness

Could magic mushrooms hold the key that unlocks the secrets of consciousness?

Well, maybe not the only key. But Allen Institute neuroscientist Christof Koch says that hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient found in special types of mushrooms, can contribute to clinical research into the roots of depression, ecstasy and what lies beneath our sense of self.

“What they can teach us about consciousness is that the self is just one aspect of consciousness,” Koch says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “You’re still highly conscious, and very often this is associated with states of ecstasy, or states of fear or terror, or a combination of ecstasy and terror. … What’s remarkable is that in all of these states, the self is gone, and very often the external world is gone, yet you’re highly conscious.”

The quest to understand consciousness through detailed analysis of the brain’s structure and function, scientific studies of religious and traditional practices — and yes, research into the effects of psychedelic drugs — is the focus of a 102-minute documentary film titled “Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness.”

“Aware” has been on the film-festival circuit for weeks, and an online showing will be the centerpiece of a live-streaming event set for Nov. 10. The documentary will also air on PBS stations next April as part of public TV’s Independent Lens series.

Koch, who’s the chief scientist of the Seattle-based Allen Institute’s MindScope brain-mapping program, is one of the stars of the show.

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GeekWire

Scientist takes on the consciousness conundrum

Christof Koch
Neuroscientist Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, talks about the roots of consciousness at the 2017 GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

Do animals possess consciousness? Can consciousness be uploaded into a computer? Can we measure objectively whether someone is conscious or not?

Those may sound like deep, imponderable questions — but in a newly published book, “The Feeling of Life Itself,” neuroscientist Christof Koch actually lays out some answers: Yes, no … and yes, scientists are already testing a method for measuring consciousness, with eerie implications.

Along the way, Koch addresses brain-teasing concepts ranging from the Vulcan mind melds seen on “Star Trek” to the kind of brain-computer interface that billionaire Elon Musk is backing through his Neuralink venture.

Get the full story on GeekWire.