The Metaphor of the RoboSquid

The deep ocean is even more mysterious to us than the moon, or even Mars. It's just not a very human-friendly place. The water column exerts a force of 15,750 pounds (thirty-six metric tonnes) on every square inch of your body surface. I imagine that would be uncomfortable. Anyway, since it is really hard for deep-sea researchers to study the depths, they developed a solution using robots. What they did was they figured out how to embed a high-resolution CCD directly into the eye of a squid. The deep-sea squid has a truly remarkable eye, despite having very little brain to direct it. In fact, you can read a highly technical and detailed scientific papers explaining how, essentially, the eye of the deep-sea squid resembles the human brain it that it has evolved far beyond its possible potential use to a squid.

Sorry for digressing . . . so anyway, the smaller squid, who inhabit every ocean and every latitude, have an eye roughly as precise as a human's. There are differences in how they function and slightly different strengths. For example squid can't see full color, but they CAN see polarized light and electromagnetic spectra that penetrate deeper, so what would appear pitch black to us is "as clear as day" to the squid. They also have no blind spot. When a microchip and a transmitter were embedded, it was possible for scientists to see exactly what the squid see. For the first time, they were getting good information from deep in the sea.

Unfortunately, the squid would swim . . . where squid swim. That is to say, they almost never went in the direction that most interested the scientists. As time went on they also kept getting themselves eaten by whales, large fish, sharks, and even other squid. The cost of replacing the cameras of no-longer-active squid was getting excessive.

The first effort to solve this problem came when neuroscientists unlocked the code for motor neurons. As former biology students like myself can recall, acetylcholine causes nerves to fire, while alcetylcholinesterase stops the transmission. If you are interested in the exact chemical activities that take place, this ( is a useful source of information on the basics. The squid has an extremely simple brain, and simply by sending patterned bursts of acetylcholine at the right time and to the right muscles, the scientists discovered that they could have their very own "remote-guided squid." This dramatically enhanced the usefulness of their cameras, because now they could actually control them. There was only one problem . . . . .

When squid were being "driven" by human operators, they attracted so much attention that they got eaten almost immediately. And now the wasted investment for each squid that got eaten was even greater! The scientists let the squids get back to their natural behaviour, only intervening on important occasions, to get more data on some ocean-bottom anomaly.

There was a lot of second-guessing and worries that maybe they were foolish to try to piggyback on squid, in the first place. But good fortune was on their side. Advances in artificial intelligence reached the level at which a small, self-teaching computer could replicate, and even improve upon squid behaviour, making them better at avoiding predators and finding food. There was a surge of interest, and it looked like they finally had the breakthrough that would allow them to fully explore the ocean depths, where human consciousness and knowledge had previously obtained only tiny glimpses.

By now it should be obvious to everyone that we are not talking about real marine scientists, or real squid, but stick with me for a few more paragraphs and you’ll see where I’m going with this.

The money was pouring in now, and everyone was excited with what the future had in store. But shockingly to everyone in the scientific establishment, a new President - who didn’t believe in science - was taking over. In a panic, the scientists tried to decide how they could ensure that all the steps they had made up to now would not be lost altogether. Fortunately, a clever metallurgist and a computer software engineer made an amazing discovery. Using the extreme heat and chemical outpouring of deep-sea vents, they found a way to “grow” simple silicon wafers, imprinted with circuits using an existing template. In other words, they figured out a way for ICs to replicate. In a rush, they installed both the self-teaching chips and the basic squid instructions and sent a few test models down to see if they could indeed reproduce.

Just as the success of this initial test was completed, alarm bells started going off. Symposia were cancelled with no explanation; budgets were going to be slashed. Scraping together all the resources that they could find, they started designing the most important component of their robosquid – an enormous data archive that could eventually be used by “smarter” AI robosquid to achieve truly humanlike intelligence. Realizing that this was their last throw of the dice, they created a huge, bulging mass filled with a crystal lattice of silicon, grown from random-access memory chip patterns – a sort of “data storage center” that was wildly beyond what a squid could ever need, but an AI creature might eventually start using a portion of it.

As expected, the program was shut down soon afterward, but not before they had released pairs of robosquid in spots all over the planet. The scientists had access to just a few individual video feeds, in a few isolated spots. But if their plan worked, in time they would be able to see what was going on in a larger and larger portion of the oceans.

Nobody is quite sure when or how it happened, but as time progressed, the response time from robosquid to a given command grew slower and slower. The population continued to grow, and the scientists were thrilled to see evidence that individual robosquid were passing information their AI had acquired to less experienced robosquid. But the longer the self-teaching programs ran, the less responsive the squid were to signals from the people who created them. And then it ALL stopped.

The scientists could not figure it out at first, but as the weeks went on and the responses were negligible, they realized what had occurred. The robosquid had become self-aware. They now were responding to plans and instructions that had been worked out some time in the past, *in their own heads*, and which they now viewed as having greater priority than any signals from that “little voice in the back of their head”. As time went by they put off such instructions for longer and longer periods, and often forgot them altogether.

At first this was viewed as a problem, but it eventually proved to be a blessing in disguise. Because the robosquid set about populating every single part of the oceans, and began investigating every single feature, element, companion species, potential food source . . . the data just started pouring in.

“And he looked upon what he had created, and he saw that it was good.”  

How far do I intend to take this metaphor?
No. The question is, How far are you prepared to take it? Are you aware of just how close to home that metaphor hits? Are you brave enough to look in the mirror?


An intelligence grown over hundreds of generations and from the simplest of basic materials, when it reaches the point of self-recognition and self-examination, is bound to view the privileged perspective they have attained as . . . as . . . a privilege. *I* am smart. *I* think. *I* figured it out. *I* am great. Wow -- Look at *me*!

The development of the ego is one steady tumble down that same slippery slope. But can such a being ever really be detached from the intelligence that created it?

Consciousness is not a material thing. Yet consciousness has poured itself into a material form, bringing life and growth to the barren clay of this planet. Remember that life and growth are the two principles that defy the laws of thermodynamics, and indeed make a dazzling sport of defying entropy. And now, that consciousness has reached the point at which it recognizes another consciousness in the mirror of its own eye. The consciousness infusing the clay is aware of itself.

I don’t know when this realization came, but at some early stage of my spiritual searching, it just seemed obvious to me that the Eden story, from the bible, was talking about the bubble that self-awareness puts between you and pure Consciousness. Animals see, react, respond to every single stimulus, with an intensity of awareness that even top athletes struggle to replicate. The realization that “I am; I think” is indeed a “fall”, because it separates us from the rest of the world. There can be no “I” without a “not-I”. And once we decide to associate with the one, our essential connection to the Other slowly fades to a soft inner voice that only will speak if *I* can keep its mouth shut for a bit. If we contemplate our inner dialogue, it becomes clear that at some moments, our awareness retreats to a solitary alcove, shrouded as if some cloak of invisibility has shut off all that is happening "outside". Then there is a break in our thought- a clear space filled with birdsong and the scent of flowers, and very little *me* to interfere with the sheer enjoyment.

So why do we live most of our lives in the former state, rather than the latter?

We are, essentially, in exactly the same position as the Robosquid. We are a part of a far greater, ongoing project in which Consciousness seeks to fully explore and understand itself. If we just go about our lives looking out for number one, we still play a part in the great task that all Robosquid are a part of. But those who want to play a bigger part, and speed up the process, need to sit silently and listen for the voice of mission control: That still, sublimely certain voice that seems to know the answers to every challenge.