Sunday, July 17, 2011

Diamond Eyes, A. A. Bell

A. A. Bell's Diamond Eyes starts out with hints of what is to come:   Mira, the protagonist, hears her new staff advocate, Ben Chiron, asking

"Why bother blindfolding a blind woman?"
"Why restrain her?", and
"How much trouble could she be?"

She's used to these questions, so we know right away that she's blind, institutionalized, and a handful, but have to wait to find out why she insists on a blindfold (or more permanent measures.) The Serenity Center has a new, more humane director (Matron Sanchez) who has assigned Ben to work with Mira to attempt to bring her out of her shell. Ben promises to protect her from the other staff members who have been treating her roughly, and slowly wins her over.

There's not much action for a while as we get to meet the other characters. It's quite a while before we find out what's special about Mira's eyes, and Bell gives the story a mainstream feel until the revelation.

Mira is blind in the normal visual range, but sees ghostly visual echoes from events of the past. When she's above a building's first floor, she sees only earlier inhabitants of the area on the ground, and can't navigate because the walls and doors disappear. The blindfold keeps her from being distracted by the ghosts; she can't interact with people from the past, so they're clearly different from the flesh-and-blood people who talk to her and keep her tied up much of the time. She's obstreperous because the people who attempt to control her bahavior are only slightly more real to her than the ghosts she can see clearly.

Into this mix, Bell adds Dr. Zhou, who has invented a device that can tell whether someone is telling the truth (or at least believes that they are doing so.) Whle using Mira in a test of the device, the scientists are surprised to discover that she believes what are obviously (to them) hallucinations, they're interested enough that they follow up on her answers and figure out that that she's seeing into the past, then test her abilities by getting her to witness some known and some previously unknown events.

With this situation and characters Bell builds an interesting set of conflicts and an action packed story. I think the military intelligence angle behind Dr. Zhou was unnecessary, and the story would have been better without it. Mira's fight to free herself from the Serenity Center's institutional clutches is a heroic struggle, and the staff of the Serenity Center takes a little too much delight in restraining her physically (though Mira really is uncontrollable.)

Harper Collins sent review copies to the Prometheus Award committee, but none of the committee members thought the libertarian angles were strong enough to warrant a nomination. I agree; I enjoyed the story more for its off-beat sensibility than for the pro-freedom aspects. By the end of the story, Ben and Mira understand her strange ability, and have a strong relationship to build on. They've confounded the military, and Sanchez is on their side. Bell was a bit too even-handed to bring Mira's struggle for reasonable treatment to the forefront. I think it's even a better story for that.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Ego Tunnel, Thomas Metzinger

Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel is a provocative look at the nature of consciousness. Metzinger takes an innovative approach to the questions and raises some interesting issues without seeming to have a strong grasp of the subject.

Metzinger's project is to explore the nature of consciousness by examining two neglected states of awareness: out-of-body experiences (OOBEs), and lucid dreaming. He argues that studying these phenomena will illuminate the problem of consciousness and make everything clear. I'll agree that the exploration was intriguing, but I don't think we learned anything important over what Dennett made clear in Consciousness Explained. At the end, Metzinger heads out to left field for some completely ungrounded speculations about AI and ethics. In these areas, he's clearly way out of his depth. He doesn't understand what's been done in AI, or what's possible, and his claims about the "obvious" rights of artificial creatures and how it wouldn't be moral to treat them is unconvincing.

When introducing the idea of studying unusual states of consciousness, Metzinger makes the reasonable point that there is enough consistency in the experiences reported during OOBEs and lucid dreaming that it makes sense to take a look at them and see whether the commonalities are instructive. I thought he did a good job of drawing some clear lines around what it feels like to be conscious in comparison to other states in which there is awareness without self-awareness. The title comes from his metaphor of an "Ego Tunnel" as a constrained mental space encompassing the limited set of things that one is aware of at a moment in time. Metzinger points to recent fMRI work and claims that neurophysiologists are finding a neural correlate of consciousness, which they can identify in the brain, and so they can conclusively say that lucid dreaming and OOBEs are conscious states. It's not clear to me that whatever the MRIs are finding really corresponds to the same thing we mean by consciousness, but the argument that these are conscious states is convincing enough without that evidence. He brings up the idea of mirror neurons, and points toward an interesting argument that this feature of our brain is responsible for our being able to model ourselves as an active agent like others we can observe. This argument only occupied a couple of pages, and ended (I thought) inconclusively.

Unfortunately, Metzinger's identification of these mental states as reasonably corresponding to consciousness doesn't enable him to say any more about what consciousness is, what survival-related purpose it serves, or anything coherent about consequences. He tries to talk about AI and ethics, but his justification doesn't get beyond the level of our responsibility for our creations, and the primacy of experience. For him, it's obvious that it would be immoral to turn off anything that has experiences, so in his view, we shouldn't even explore the creation of artificial creatures, since we can't establish a theoretical lower bound for what it would mean to have experiences. This is a much deeper subject than he seems aware of, and he barely brushed the surface of it. With his (apparently) shallow understanding of the issues, his speculations are hard to take very seriously.

I thought the first two thirds of the book were worth reading for their exploration and presentation of how OOBEs and lucid dreaming relate to consciousness. The fMRI and other studies of these states may add significantly to our understanding of how the brain works and eventually to a clearer explanation of what's happening in the neurons during thought and consciousness.