The Octopus and the Android with Ray Nayler (podcast)
A new work of fiction imagines octopuses off the Con Dao islands start to show sparks of culture. Human researchers and their AI collaborators race to understand them.
Ray Nayler is a writer, poet, and author of speculative fiction, including the critically acclaimed novel The Mountain in the Sea, which he discusses for this episode of Many Minds podcast. Nayler has a diverse background that includes working as Foreign Service and in the Peace Corps, including a stint as Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer at the U.S. consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently international advisor to the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:
"Have you heard of Octopolis? It’s a site off the coast of Australia where octopuses come together. It’s been described as a kind of underwater "settlement" or "city." Now, smart as octopuses are, they are not really known for being particularly sociable. But it seems that, given the right conditions, they can shift in that direction. So it's not a huge leap to wonder whether these kinds of cephalopod congregations could eventually give rise to something else—a culture, a language, maybe something like a civilization.
This is the idea at the center of Ray Nayler's new book, The Mountain in the Sea. It's both a thriller of sorts and a novel of ideas; it’s set in the near future, in the Con Dao archipelago of Vietnam. It grapples with the nature of intelligence and meaning, with the challenges of interspecies communication and companionship, and ultimately with what it means to be human.
Here, Ray and I talk about how he got interested in cephalopods and how he came to know the Con Dao archipelago. We discuss some of the choices he made as an author — choices about what drives the octopuses in his book to develop symbols and about what those symbols are like. We consider the major human characters in his book, in particular two ambitious researchers who embody very different approaches to understanding minds. We also talk a fair bit about AI — another central character in the book, after all, is a super-intelligent android. Along the way, Ray and I touch on Arrival, biosemiotics, the nature of symbols, memory and storytelling, embodiment, epigenetics, cephalopod camouflage, exaptation, and the sandbox that is speculative fiction."
Play the full episode with the above player.
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Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.