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.