Octopus - Deep Intellect, Soul, Alien

SUBHEAD: "Deep Intellect" was an article that led to the book "The Soul of an Octopus".

By Sy Montgonery on 24 October 2011 for Orion Magazine  -

Image above: A young girl and giant pacific octopus meet at the Seattle Aquarium. Photo by Lazlo. From (https://www.wired.com/2011/11/strange-mind-stranger-brain-of-the-octopus/).

On an unseasonably warm day in the middle of March, I traveled from New Hampshire to the moist, dim sanctuary of the New England Aquarium, hoping to touch an alternate reality. I came to meet Athena, the aquarium’s forty-pound, five-foot-long, two-and-a-half-year-old giant Pacific octopus.
For me, it was a momentous occasion. I have always loved octopuses.

No sci-fi alien is so startlingly strange. Here is someone who, even if she grows to one hundred pounds and stretches more than eight feet long, could still squeeze her boneless body through an opening the size of an orange; an animal whose eight arms are covered with thousands of suckers that taste as well as feel; a mollusk with a beak like a parrot and venom like a snake and a tongue covered with teeth; a creature who can shape-shift, change color, and squirt ink.

But most intriguing of all, recent research indicates that octopuses are remarkably intelligent.

Many times I have stood mesmerized by an aquarium tank, wondering, as I stared into the horizontal pupils of an octopus’s large, prominent eyes, if she was staring back at me — and if so, what was she thinking?

Not long ago, a question like this would have seemed foolish, if not crazy. How can an octopus know anything, much less form an opinion? Octopuses are, after all, “only” invertebrates — they don’t even belong with the insects, some of whom, like dragonflies and dung beetles, at least seem to show some smarts. Octopuses are classified within the invertebrates in the mollusk family, and many mollusks, like clams, have no brain.

Only recently have scientists accorded chimpanzees, so closely related to humans we can share blood transfusions, the dignity of having a mind.

But now, increasingly, researchers who study octopuses are convinced that these boneless, alien animals — creatures whose ancestors diverged from the lineage that would lead to ours roughly 500 to 700 million years ago — have developed intelligence, emotions, and individual personalities. Their findings are challenging our understanding of consciousness itself.

I had always longed to meet an octopus. Now was my chance: senior aquarist Scott Dowd arranged an introduction. In a back room, he would open the top of Athena’s tank. If she consented, I could touch her.

The heavy lid covering her tank separated our two worlds. One world was mine and yours, the reality of air and land, where we lumber through life governed by a backbone and constrained by jointed limbs and gravity.

The other world was hers, the reality of a nearly gelatinous being breathing water and moving weightlessly through it. We think of our world as the “real” one, but Athena’s is realer still: after all, most of the world is ocean, and most animals live there. Regardless of whether they live on land or water, more than 95 percent of all animals are invertebrates, like Athena.

The moment the lid was off, we reached for each other. She had already oozed from the far corner of her lair, where she had been hiding, to the top of the tank to investigate her visitor. Her eight arms boiled up, twisting, slippery, to meet mine. I plunged both my arms elbow deep into the fifty-seven-degree water.

Athena’s melon-sized head bobbed to the surface. Her left eye (octopuses have one dominant eye like humans have a dominant hand) swiveled in its socket to meet mine. “She’s looking at you,” Dowd said.

As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed.

But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss — at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom.

When I stroked her soft head with my fingertips, she changed color beneath my touch, her ruby-flecked skin going white and smooth. This, I learned, is a sign of a relaxed octopus. An agitated giant Pacific octopus turns red, its skin gets pimply, and it erects two papillae over the eyes, which some divers say look like horns. One name for the species is “devil fish.”

With sharp, parrotlike beaks, octopuses can bite, and most have neurotoxic, flesh-dissolving venom. The pressure from an octopus’s suckers can tear flesh (one scientist calculated that to break the hold of the suckers of the much smaller common octopus would require a quarter ton of force). One volunteer who interacted with an octopus left the aquarium with arms covered in red hickeys.

Occasionally an octopus takes a dislike to someone. One of Athena’s predecessors at the aquarium, Truman, felt this way about a female volunteer. Using his funnel, the siphon near the side of the head used to jet through the sea, Truman would shoot a soaking stream of salt water at this young woman whenever he got a chance.

Later, she quit her volunteer position for college. But when she returned to visit several months later, Truman, who hadn’t squirted anyone in the meanwhile, took one look at her and instantly soaked her again.

Athena was remarkably gentle with me — even as she began to transfer her grip from her smaller, outer suckers to the larger ones. She seemed to be slowly but steadily pulling me into her tank. Had it been big enough to accommodate my body, I would have gone in willingly. But at this point, I asked Dowd if perhaps I should try to detach from some of the suckers. With his help, Athena and I pulled gently apart.

I was honored that she appeared comfortable with me. But what did she know about me that informed her opinion? When Athena looked into my eyes, what was she thinking?

While Alexa Warburton was researching her senior thesis at Middlebury College’s newly created octopus lab, “every day,” she said, “was a disaster.”

She was working with two species: the California two-spot, with a head the size of a clementine, and the smaller, Florida species, Octopus joubini. Her objective was to study the octopuses’ behavior in a T-shaped maze. But her study subjects were constantly thwarting her.

The first problem was keeping the octopuses alive. The four-hundred-gallon tank was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But even though students hammered in dividers, the octopuses found ways to dig beneath them — and eat each other.

Or they’d mate, which is equally lethal.

Octopuses die after mating and laying eggs, but first they go senile, acting like a person with dementia. “They swim loop-the-loop in the tank, they look all googly-eyed, they won’t look you in the eye or attack prey,” Warburton said. One senile octopus crawled out of the tank, squeezed into a crack in the wall, dried up, and died.

It seemed to Warburton that some of the octopuses were purposely uncooperative. To run the T-maze, the pre-veterinary student had to scoop an animal from its tank with a net and transfer it to a bucket. With bucket firmly covered, octopus and researcher would take the elevator down to the room with the maze.

Some octopuses did not like being removed from their tanks. They would hide. They would squeeze into a corner where they couldn’t be pried out. They would hold on to some object with their arms and not let go.

Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor — and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” Warburton said. “It’s so weird!”

Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish — upon whom they have usually been dining.

Even though the Middlebury octopuses were disaster prone, Warburton liked certain individuals very much. Some, she said, “would lift their arms out of the water like dogs jump up to greet you.” Though in their research papers the students refer to each octopus by a number, the students named them all. One of the joubini was such a problem they named her The Bitch. “Catching her for the maze always took twenty minutes,” Warburton said. “She’d grip onto something and not let go. Once she got stuck in a filter and we couldn’t get her out. It was awful!”

Then there was Wendy. Warburton used Wendy as part of her thesis presentation, a formal event that was videotaped. First Wendy squirted salt water at her, drenching her nice suit. Then, as Warburton tried to show how octopuses use the T-maze, Wendy scurried to the bottom of the tank and hid in the sand. Warburton says the whole debacle occurred because the octopus realized in advance what was going to happen. “Wendy,” she said, “just didn’t feel like being caught in the net.”

Data from Warburton’s experiments showed that the California two-spots quickly learned which side of a T-maze offered a terra-cotta pot to hide in. But Warburton learned far more than her experiments revealed. “Science,” she says, “can only say so much. I know they watched me. I know they sometimes followed me.

But they are so different from anything we normally study. How do you prove the intelligence of someone so different?”

Measuring the minds of other creatures is a perplexing problem. One yardstick scientists use is brain size, since humans have big brains. But size doesn’t always match smarts. As is well known in electronics, anything can be miniaturized.

Small brain size was the evidence once used to argue that birds were stupid — before some birds were proven intelligent enough to compose music, invent dance steps, ask questions, and do math.

Octopuses have the largest brains of any invertebrate. Athena’s is the size of a walnut — as big as the brain of the famous African gray parrot, Alex, who learned to use more than one hundred spoken words meaningfully. That’s proportionally bigger than the brains of most of the largest dinosaurs.

Another measure of intelligence: you can count neurons. The common octopus has about 130 million of them in its brain. A human has 100 billion. But this is where things get weird. Three-fifths of an octopus’s neurons are not in the brain; they’re in its arms.

“It is as if each arm has a mind of its own,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, a diver, professor of philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an admirer of octopuses.

For example, researchers who cut off an octopus’s arm (which the octopus can regrow) discovered that not only does the arm crawl away on its own, but if the arm meets a food item, it seizes it — and tries to pass it to where the mouth would be if the arm were still connected to its body.

“Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes.

One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom — until it swims away.

For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.

But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods — octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid — may be able to see with their skin.

The American philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote a famous paper titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Bats can see with sound. Like dolphins, they can locate their prey using echoes.

Nagel concluded it was impossible to know what it’s like to be a bat. And a bat is a fellow mammal like us — not someone who tastes with its suckers, sees with its skin, and whose severed arms can wander about, each with a mind of its own. Nevertheless, there are researchers still working diligently to understand what it’s like to be an octopus.

Jennifer Mather spent most of her time in Bermuda floating facedown on the surface of the water at the edge of the sea. Breathing through a snorkel, she was watching Octopus vulgaris — the common octopus. Although indeed common (they are found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide), at the time of her study in the mid-1980s, “nobody knew what they were doing.”

In a relay with other students from six-thirty in the morning till six-thirty at night, Mather worked to find out. Sometimes she’d see an octopus hunting. A hunting expedition could take five minutes or three hours. The octopus would capture something, inject it with venom, and carry it home to eat.

“Home,” Mather found, is where octopuses spend most of their time.

A home, or den, which an octopus may occupy only a few days before switching to a new one, is a place where the shell-less octopus can safely hide: a hole in a rock, a discarded shell, or a cubbyhole in a sunken ship. One species, the Pacific red octopus, particularly likes to den in stubby, brown, glass beer bottles.

One octopus Mather was watching had just returned home and was cleaning the front of the den with its arms. Then, suddenly, it left the den, crawled a meter away, picked up one particular rock and placed the rock in front of the den.

Two minutes later, the octopus ventured forth to select a second rock. Then it chose a third. Attaching suckers to all the rocks, the octopus carried the load home, slid through the den opening, and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep. What the octopus was thinking seemed obvious: “Three rocks are enough. Good night!”

The scene has stayed with Mather. The octopus “must have had some concept,” she said, “of what it wanted to make itself feel safe enough to go to sleep.” And the octopus knew how to get what it wanted: by employing foresight, planning — and perhaps even tool use.

Mather is the lead author of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, which includes observations of octopuses who dismantle Lego sets and open screw-top jars. Coauthor Roland Anderson reports that octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles — a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees.

In another experiment, Anderson gave octopuses plastic pill bottles painted different shades and with different textures to see which evoked more interest. Usually each octopus would grasp a bottle to see if it were edible and then cast it off.

But to his astonishment, Anderson saw one of the octopuses doing something striking: she was blowing carefully modulated jets of water from her funnel to send the bottle to the other end of her aquarium, where the water flow sent it back to her. She repeated the action twenty times.

By the eighteenth time, Anderson was already on the phone with Mather with the news: “She’s bouncing the ball!”

This octopus wasn’t the only one to use the bottle as a toy. Another octopus in the study also shot water at the bottle, sending it back and forth across the water’s surface, rather than circling the tank. Anderson’s observations were reported in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “This fit all the criteria for play behavior,” said Anderson. “Only intelligent animals play — animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.”

Aquarists who care for octopuses feel that not only can these animals play with toys, but they may need to play with toys. An Octopus Enrichment Handbook has been developed by Cincinnati’s Newport Aquarium, with ideas of how to keep these creatures entertained. One suggestion is to hide food inside Mr. Potato Head and let your octopus dismantle it.

At the Seattle Aquarium, giant Pacific octopuses play with a baseball-sized plastic ball that can be screwed together by twisting the two halves. Sometimes the mollusks screw the halves back together after eating the prey inside.

At the New England Aquarium, it took an engineer who worked on the design of cubic zirconium to devise a puzzle worthy of a brain like Athena’s. Wilson Menashi, who began volunteering at the aquarium weekly after retiring from the Arthur D. Little Corporation sixteen years ago, devised a series of three Plexiglas cubes, each with a different latch.

The smallest cube has a sliding latch that twists to lock down, like the bolt on a horse stall. Aquarist Bill Murphy puts a crab inside the clear cube and leaves the lid open. Later he lets the octopus lift open the lid. Finally he locks the lid, and invariably the octopus figures out how to open it.

Next he locks the first cube within a second one. The new latch slides counterclockwise to catch on a bracket. The third box is the largest, with two different locks: a bolt that slides into position to lock down, and a second one like a lever arm, sealing the lid much like the top of an old-fashioned glass canning jar.

All the octopuses Murphy has known learned fast. They typically master a box within two or three once-a-week tries. “Once they ‘get it,'” he says, “they can open it very fast” — within three or four minutes. But each may use a different strategy.

George, a calm octopus, opened the boxes methodically. The impetuous Gwenevere squeezed the second-largest box so hard she broke it, leaving a hole two inches wide. Truman, Murphy said, was “an opportunist.” One day, inside the smaller of the two boxes, Murphy put two crabs, who started to fight. Truman was too excited to bother with locks.

He poured his seven-foot-long body through the two-inch crack Gwenevere had made, and visitors looked into his exhibit to find the giant octopus squeezed, suckers flattened, into the tiny space between the walls of the fourteen-cubic-inch box outside and the six-cubic-inch one inside it. Truman stayed inside half an hour. He never opened the inner box — probably he was too cramped.

Three weeks after I had first met Athena, I returned to the aquarium to meet the man who had designed the cubes. Menashi, a quiet grandfather with a dark moustache, volunteers every Tuesday. “He has a real way with octopuses,” Dowd and Murphy told me. I was eager to see how Athena behaved with him.

Murphy opened the lid of her tank, and Athena rose to the surface eagerly. A bucket with a handful of fish sat nearby. Did she rise so eagerly sensing the food? Or was it the sight of her friend that attracted her? “She knows me,” Menashi answered softly.

Anderson’s experiments with giant Pacific octopuses in Seattle prove Menashi is right. The study exposed eight octopuses to two unfamiliar humans, dressed identically in blue aquarium shirts. One person consistently fed a particular octopus, and another always touched it with a bristly stick. Within a week, at first sight of the people, most octopuses moved toward the feeders and away from the irritators, at whom they occasionally aimed their water-shooting funnels.

Upon seeing Menashi, Athena reached up gently and grasped his hands and arms. She flipped upside down, and he placed a capelin in some of the suckers near her mouth, at the center of her arms. The fish vanished. After she had eaten, Athena floated in the tank upside down, like a puppy asking for a belly rub. Her arms twisted lazily.

I took one in my hand to feel the suckers — did that arm know it had hold of a different person than the other arms did? Her grip felt calm, relaxed. With me, earlier, she seemed playful, exploratory, excited. The way she held Menashi with her suckers seemed to me like the way a long-married couple holds hands at the movies.

I leaned over the tank to look again into her eyes, and she bobbed up to return my gaze. “She has eyelids like a person does,” Menashi said. He gently slid his hand near one of her eyes, causing her to slowly wink.

Biologists have long noted the similarities between the eyes of an octopus and the eyes of a human.

Canadian zoologist N. J. Berrill called it “the single most startling feature of the whole animal kingdom” that these organs are nearly identical: both animals’ eyes have transparent corneas, regulate light with iris diaphragms, and focus lenses with a ring of muscle.

Scientists are currently debating whether we and octopuses evolved eyes separately, or whether a common ancestor had the makings of the eye. But intelligence is another matter. “The same thing that got them their smarts isn’t the same thing that got us our smarts,” says Mather, “because our two ancestors didn’t have any smarts.” Half a billion years ago, the brainiest thing on the planet had only a few neurons. Octopus and human intelligence evolved independently.

“Octopuses,” writes philosopher Godfrey-Smith, “are a separate experiment in the evolution of the mind.” And that, he feels, is what makes the study of the octopus mind so philosophically interesting.

The octopus mind and the human mind probably evolved for different reasons. Humans — like other vertebrates whose intelligence we recognize (parrots, elephants, and whales) — are long-lived, social beings. Most scientists agree that an important event that drove the flowering of our intelligence was when our ancestors began to live in social groups.

 Decoding and developing the many subtle relationships among our fellows, and keeping track of these changing relationships over the course of the many decades of a typical human lifespan, was surely a major force shaping our minds.

But octopuses are neither long-lived nor social. Athena, to my sorrow, may live only a few more months — the natural lifespan of a giant Pacific octopus is only three years. If the aquarium added another octopus to her tank, one might eat the other. Except to mate, most octopuses have little to do with others of their kind.

So why is the octopus so intelligent? What is its mind for? Mather thinks she has the answer. She believes the event driving the octopus toward intelligence was the loss of the ancestral shell. Losing the shell freed the octopus for mobility. Now they didn’t need to wait for food to find them; they could hunt like tigers.

And while most octopuses love crab best, they hunt and eat dozens of other species — each of which demands a different hunting strategy. Each animal you hunt may demand a different skill set: Will you camouflage yourself for a stalk-and-ambush attack? Shoot through the sea for a fast chase? Or crawl out of the water to capture escaping prey?

Losing the protective shell was a trade-off. Just about anything big enough to eat an octopus will do so. Each species of predator also demands a different evasion strategy — from flashing warning coloration if your attacker is vulnerable to venom, to changing color and shape to camouflage, to fortifying the door to your home with rocks.

Such intelligence is not always evident in the laboratory. “In the lab, you give the animals this situation, and they react,” points out Mather. But in the wild, “the octopus is actively discovering his environment, not waiting for it to hit him. The animal makes the decision to go out and get information, figures out how to get the information, gathers it, uses it, stores it. This has a great deal to do with consciousness.”

So what does it feel like to be an octopus? Philosopher Godfrey-Smith has given this a great deal of thought, especially when he meets octopuses and their relatives, giant cuttlefish, on dives in his native Australia. “They come forward and look at you.

They reach out to touch you with their arms,” he said. “It’s remarkable how little is known about them . . . but I could see it turning out that we have to change the way we think of the nature of the mind itself to take into account minds with less of a centralized self.”

“I think consciousness comes in different flavors,” agrees Mather. “Some may have consciousness in a way we may not be able to imagine.”

In May, I visited Athena a third time. I wanted to see if she recognized me. But how could I tell? Scott Dowd opened the top of her tank for me. Athena had been in a back corner but floated immediately to the top, arms outstretched, upside down.

This time I offered her only one arm. I had injured a knee and, feeling wobbly, used my right hand to steady me while I stood on the stool to lean over the tank. Athena in turn gripped me with only one of her arms, and very few of her suckers. Her hold on me was remarkably gentle.

I was struck by this, since Murphy and others had first described Athena’s personality to me as “feisty.” “They earn their names,” Murphy had told me. Athena is named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, war, and strategy. She is not usually a laid-back octopus, like George had been. “Athena could pull you into the tank,” Murphy had warned. “She’s curious about what you are.”

Was she less curious now? Did she remember me? I was disappointed that she did not bob her head up to look at me. But perhaps she didn’t need to. She may have known from the taste of my skin who I was. But why was this feisty octopus hanging in front of me in the water, upside down?

Then I thought I might know what she wanted from me. She was begging. Dowd asked around and learned that Athena hadn’t eaten in a couple of days, then allowed me the thrilling privilege of handing her a capelin.

Perhaps I had understood something basic about what it felt like to be Athena at that moment: she was hungry. I handed a fish to one of her larger suckers, and she began to move it toward her mouth. But soon she brought more arms to the task, and covered the fish with many suckers — as if she were licking her fingers, savoring the meal.

A week after I last visited Athena, I was shocked to receive this e-mail from Scott Dowd: “Sorry to write with some sad news. Athena appears to be in her final days, or even hours. She will live on, though, through your conveyance.” Later that same day, Dowd wrote to tell me that she had died. To my surprise, I found myself in tears.

Why such sorrow? I had understood from the start that octopuses don’t live very long. I also knew that while Athena did seem to recognize me,

 I was not by any means her special friend. But she was very significant to me, both as an individual and as a representative from her octopodan world. She had given me a great gift: a deeper understanding of what it means to think, to feel, and to know. I was eager to meet more of her kind.

And so, it was with some excitement that I read this e-mail from Dowd a few weeks later: “There is a young pup octopus headed to Boston from the Pacific Northwest. Come shake hands (x8) when you can.”

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about our connection to the animal world, are collected in a new anthology, Animals & People. Order your copy here. The article also became the basis for the author’s 2015 book, The Soul of an Octopus. See excerpt below.

 Excerpt from The Soul of an Octopus

By Sy Montgonery on 1 July 2015 for SyMontgonemery.com  -

Image above: Sy Montgomery strokes octopus Athena. From (https://www.azpm.org/s/37601-finding-the-soul-of-an-octopus-and-who-killed-vincent-van-gogh/).

On a rare, warm day in mid-March, when back in New Hampshire the snow was melting into mud, and in Boston, everyone else was strolling along the harbor or sitting on benches licking ice cream cones, I quit the blessed sunlight for the moist, dim sanctuary of the New England Aquarium. I had a date with a giant Pacific octopus.

Her name was Athena, but I didn’t know that then. I knew little about octopuses—not even that the correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending—i—on a word derived from the Greek, like octopus).

But what I did know intrigued me. Here is an animal that has venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange. It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin. Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart.

This bore out what scant experience I had already had; like many who visit octopuses in public aquaria, I’ve often had the feeling the octopus I was watching was watching me back, with an interest as keen as my own.

How could that be? It’s hard to find an animal more unlike a human than an octopus. They have no bones. They breathe water. Their bodies aren’t organized like ours. We go: head, body, limbs. They go: body, head, limbs. Their mouths are in their armpits—or, if you prefer to liken their arms to our lower, instead of upper, extremities, between their legs. Their appendages are covered with suckers, a structure for which no mammal has any analog.

And not only are octopuses on the opposite side of the great vertebral divide that separates the backboned creatures like mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish from everything else; they are classed within the invertebrates as mollusks, like slugs and snails and clams, animals who are not particularly renowned for their intellect. Clams don’t even have brains.

The lineage that would lead to octopuses and the one leading to humans separated more than half a billion years ago. Was it possible, I wondered, to touch another mind on the other side of that divide?
Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.

They seem completely alien, and yet their world—the ocean—comprises far more of the earth (70 percent of its surface area; more than 90 percent of its habitable space) than the land.

Most animals on this planet live in the ocean. And most of them are invertebrates like Athena.
That was why I wanted to meet the octopus. I wanted to touch an alternate reality. I wanted to explore a different kind consciousness, if such a thing exists. What is it like to be an octopus? Is it anything like being a human? Is it even possible to know?

So when the aquarium’s director of public relations, Tony LaCasse, met me in the lobby, and offered to introduce me to Athena, I felt like a privileged visitor to another world.

But what I began to discover that day, after half a century of life on this earth, and much of it as a naturalist, was my own, sweet, blue planet—a world breathtakingly alien, startling and wondrous, a world in which I would at last feel fully at home.
Tony tells me that Athena’s lead keeper, senior aquarist Bill Murphy, isn’t in. My heart sinks; not just anyone can open up the octopus tank, and that’s for good reason. A giant Pacific octopus—the largest of the world’s 250 or so octopus species—can easily overpower a person. Just one of a big male’s three-inch-diameter suckers can lift 30 pounds, and a giant Pacific has 1600 of them.

Also, octopuses can bite, and they can inject a neurotoxic venom, as well as saliva with the ability to dissolve flesh. Worst of all, they can take the opportunity of an open tank to escape, and an escaped octopus is a big problem for both the octopus and the aquarium.

Happily, Tony finds another senior aquarist who is familiar with octopus to help me. Scott Dowd, a big guy in his early 40s with a silvery beard and twinkling blue eyes, is the senior aquarist for the Freshwater Gallery down the hall from Cold Marine, where Athena lives.

Scott first came to the aquarium in diapers on its opening day, June 20, 1969, and basically never left. He knows almost every animal in the aquarium personally.

Athena, Scott explains, is about two and a half years old, and weighs about 40 pounds. He lifts the heavy lid covering her tank. I mount the three short steps of a small moveable stair and lean over to see. She stretches about five feet long. Her head–by ‘head,’ I mean both the actual head and the mantle, or body, because that’s where we mammals expect an animal’s head to be— is about the size of a small watermelon. “Or at least a honeydew,” says Scott, staying with the fruit theme.

“When she first came, it was the size of a grapefruit.” The giant Pacific octopus is one of the fastest-growing animals on the planet. Hatching from an egg the size of a grain of rice, one can grow both longer and heavier than a man in three years.

By the time Scott has propped the tank cover open, Athena has already oozed from the far corner of her 560-gallon tank to investigate us. Still holding to the corner with two arms, she unfurls the others, red with excitement, and reaches to the surface. Her white suckers face up, like a person extending a palm for a handshake.

 “May I touch her?” I ask Scott. “Sure,” he says. I take off my wrist watch, remove my scarf, roll up my sleeves and plunge both arms elbow-deep into the shockingly cold, 47-degree F. water.

Twisting, gelatinous, her arms boil up from the water, reaching for mine. Instantly both my hands and forearms are engulfed with dozens of soft, questing suckers.

It occurred to me later that not everyone would like this. The naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed.

Victor Hugo imagined such an event an unmitigated horror leading to certain doom. “The spectre lies upon you; the tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life blood away,” Hugo wrote in Toilers of the Sea.

“The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster, which clings to the victim with innumerable hideous mouths….”

Fear of the octopus lies deep in the human psyche. “No animal is more savage in causing the death of man in the water,” Pliny the Elder wrote in Naturalis Historia, circa AD 79, “for it struggles with him by coiling round him and it swallows him with sucker-cups and drags him asunder…”

But Athena’s suction is gentle, though insistent. It pulls me like an alien’s kiss. Her melon-sized head bobs to the surface, and her left eye—octopuses have a dominant eye, as people have dominant hands—swivels in its socket to meet mine. Her black pupil is a fat hypen in a pearly globe. Its expression reminds me of the look in the eyes of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses—serene, all-knowing, heavy with wisdom stretching back beyond time.

“She’s looking right at you,” Scott says.

As I hold her lidless, silvery gaze, I instinctively reach to touch her head. “Supple as leather, tough as steel, cold as night,” Hugo wrote of the octopus’ flesh; but to my surprise, her head is silky, and softer than custard. Her skin is flecked with ruby and silver, a night sky reflected on the wine-dark sea. As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. Later, I learn this is the color of a relaxed octopus; in cuttlefish, close relatives of octopus, females turn white when they encounter a fellow female, someone who they need not fight or flee.

It is possible, I later learn, that Athena, in fact, knows I am a female. Though octopuses can taste with all their bodies, this sense is most exquisitely developed in the suckers. Hers is an exceptionally intimate embrace: she is at once touching and tasting my skin, and possibly the muscle, bone and blood beneath. Female octopuses, like us, possess estrogen; she could be tasting and recognizing mine. Though we have only just met, Athena already knows me in a way no being has known me before.

And she seems curious to know more—as curious about me as I am about her. Slowly, she is transferring her grip on me from the smaller, outer suckers at the tips of her arms to the larger, stronger ones, nearer her head. I am now bent at a 90 degree angle, folded like a half-open book, as I stand on the little stepstool. I realize what is happening: she is pulling me steadily into her tank.
How happily I would go with her! But alas, I know I would not fit. Her lair is beneath a rocky overhang, into which she can flow like water, but I cannot, constrained as I am by bones and joints.

 The water in her tank would come to chest-height on me, if I were standing up; but the way she is pulling me, I would instead be upside down, head first in the water, and soon facing the limitations of my air-hungry lungs. I ask Scott if I should try to detach from her grip. Gently he pulls us apart, her suckers making popping sounds like small plungers as my skin is released.
"Diving deeper than Jules Verne ever dreamed, The Soul of an Octopus is a page-turning adventure that will leave you breathless. Has science ever been this deliciously hallucinatory? Boneless and beautiful, the characters here are not only big-hearted, they're multi-hearted, as well as smart, charming, affectionate...and, of course, ambidextrous. If there is a Mother Nature, her name is Sy Montgomery."
—Vicki Constantine Croke, author of the New York Times bestselling book Elephant Company
Sources recommended by Sy Montgomery include:

Kingdom of the Octopus, by Frank W. Lane. Pyramid Publications: New York, 1962. Thrilling details. Some of the science is now outdated, but the historical accounts are fabulous. My copy cost seventy-five cents when published; the book is now out of print but findable.

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams. Abrams: New York, 2011. Highly readable accounts of octopuses and their close relatives, the squid, by a respected popular science writer.

Octopus: The Ocean's Intelligent Invertebrate, by Jennifer Mather, Roland C. Anderson, and James B. Wood. Timber Press: Portland, 2010. This is surely the most comprehensive scientific overview available, written by the top experts in the field for a lay audience. Lively and readable.

The coming tech backlash

SUBHEAD: Tech innovation is what's killing jobs. And the revolt after Trump will be a real Luddite movement.

By Ross Mayfield on 4 January 2017 for Linked In -

Image above: Mural in Portland, Oregon restaurant depicting Ned Ludd exhorting "Luddites" to destroy technology taking their livelihoods. From (http://www.foodforthoughtmiami.com/2011/09/ned-ludd-portland-oregon.html).

Forget foreign scapegoats.

The tech industry played an influential role in the outcome of the US Presidential election. Not just in providing the medium for fake news and propaganda. The root cause is job destruction by automation, which drove a base of dissatisfied Rust Belt voters to support Trump.

Job destruction is accelerating — and if tech doesn’t get ahead of this problem there will be a significant populist backlash against the industry and its ability to progress. This post was inspired by a senior in high school, Bianca Al-Shamari, who is writing an article on job automation and the impact on future generations.

Fifty percent of the jobs will be gone in  about twenty years. Not from the great sucking sound of jobs to Mexico that can be stopped with a wall. Not from moving offshore to China.

From automation that is moving quickly from blue collar manufacturing to white collar information work. Second only to climate change, this is the greatest disruption of our time, and I don’t mean that word in a good way.

A recent study found 50% of occupations today will be gone by 2020, and a 2013 Oxford study forecasted that 47% of jobs will be automated by 2034. A Ball State study found that only 13% of manufacturing job losses were due to trade, the rest from automation. A McKinsey study suggests 45% of knowledge work activity can be automated.

94% of the new job creation since 2005 is in the gig economy. These aren’t stable jobs with benefits on a career path. And if you are driving for Uber, your employer’s plan is to automate your job.

Amazon has 270k employees, but most are soon-to-be-automated operatons and fulfillment.

Facebook has 15k employees and a $330B market capitalization, and Snapchat in August had double their market cap per employee to $48M per employee. The economic impact of tech was raising productivity, but productivity and wages have been stagnant in recent years.

The future of work isn’t a new debate. But it is very unevenly distributed. Doug Engelbart pioneered augmentation just as most of his Stanford Research Institute colleagues were thinking through artificial Intelligence (AI) for automation.

We’ve tilted towards automation in the latest golden age of AI. Automation is yielding benefits for the few, while many of the best minds of augmentation are optimizing the feed of advertising. (I’ve got a bet: I’m putting most of my time behind the idea that knowledge work will survive and be augmented instead of automated away. But that’s another post.)

We are at the beginning of the fourth technological wave of innovation. After the Agricultural, Industrial and Information Ages, there’s something else.

This age is defined not by the ability to store, compute and transmit information, but the generative properties of machine and human intelligence. The Singularity isn’t near, but what you see today in early AI is like the telegraph during the industrial age: analog turning digital. (That, too, is another post.)

The canary in the coal mine is trucking. Truck driver is the No. 1 job in the USA. Driving a truck is a respectable job that pays well enough to provide for a family without a lot of education. It's in trouble.

The autonomous Uber Freight is taking orders, powered by Otto. Uber's $680M acquisition of Otto's 91 employees equals an effective valuation of $7.5M per employee. Or you could say $200 per US trucking job killed.

Let’s try to humanize this for the geeks in the Valley. Someone at your holiday family table will lose their job. Imagine that person is a truck driver.

You know those high school friends on your Facebook? Some of them will lose their jobs and their families. Knowing all this is going to happen, what do you tell them? What can they really do?

Maybe someone has two years and resources to retrain themselves. But if half the jobs are gone in twenty years, how many times will they have to retrain? What should kids study in school when today's jobs wont' exist soon?

But let’s stay in our valley of thought. Hey, Y Combinator has a Basic Income experiment alongside some socialist countries! People won’t have to work for a living. Pot is legal now, districts are gerrymandered, and we’ll find new thing to sell them that will give them purpose. Someone needs to explain to me how Basic Income isn’t the most politically unrealistic idea of our time.

Being a Luddite in modern terms has been broadly defined as "people not adopting technology." Like people that didn’t “get blogging.” But the term comes from the people who destroyed labor-saving devices in the British textile industry during the industrial revolution.

They acted on orders from a mythical general Ned Ludd to rebel against the technology that was destroying their jobs.

In 4 to 8 years there will be a populist politician who will point the finger at the tech industry as enemy number one. In a way, Trump already has. This person will yield a backlash against tech that will stunt progress and make it a far worse instrument of her or his control.

This is more than stones hurled at Google Buses. When people start to feel their unhappiness is because of tech, the post-truth era of Trump and post-ethics of the GOP elite will pale in comparison to the real movements someone could control.

Tech still has time. Lean your products towards augmentation and job creation. Solidify your principles for what is humanely right against fear-mongering and scapegoating. Foster education, and not just what worked for you, but what junior colleges can do to help people transition.

Tech company policy needs to go beyond the regulations that risk a single company wants to manage, and reflect it’s inherently progressive value set. Admit disruption is a bad word, and at least cause-relate your marketing and mission.

I think we failed to account for the whole picture when we created social, and instead just pretended neutrality in connecting people was good enough. Joi Ito in Whiplash:
We are now in a phase of emergent democracy that is quite distressing. But witnessing this has given those of us who held such optimism a decade ago even greater resolve to develop both the tools and momentum to fulfill our original dream of the technology advancing democracy in a positive way.
Tech can do more than grow. It can do good. And if doesn’t, bad things will happen.


Leaving th Age of Disconnect

SUBHEAD: What an unfathomable concept! I am molecular life with manual dexterity and a cognitive mind!

By Robert C. Koehler 5 January 2017 for Common Dreams -

Image above: Mannequins (or window dummies) are corporate attempts to tell us who and what we are, or more precisely - who and what we should be. From (http://www.mannequins-online.com/en/informations/display-mannequins-brands-10_82.html).

It’s too easy simply to blame Donald Trump for the void that’s suddenly apparent at the center of American government — or will be on Jan. 20th, 2017.

In fact, I’m utterly sick of hearing his name, let alone accounts of his latest outrage or trivial impertinence, which is the equivalent of crack cocaine in the news cycle: all Trump, all the time. It’s been that way for a year.

Trump is a symptom. But, come on, far less of a symptom — of a deep, raw social and cultural wrongness — than, for instance, the global war and terror, environmental exploitation, climate chaos, poverty, racism (old and new), infrastructure collapse, the commonness of mass murder, the limitless expansion of the security state, or the congealing of a one-party status quo that ignores all of the above.

We kind of live with this stuff and the vague pain it causes — because we know it’s wrong and feel the wrongness deep inside us — and in the process of ignoring this pain we have devolved ever more deeply into techno-escapism.

We allow ourselves to be lulled and distracted by the superficial media, which continually presents us with new enemies to blame. (The Russians! The Russians! They messed with our election!)

"It’s time to leave the Age of Disconnect. Its achievements are coming back to haunt us."

More and more, American unity is a spectator unity, the essence of which was immortalized by George W. Bush in early 2003, as his administration was preparing to invade Iraq, when he told the nation to go shopping.

Could there be a more glaring disconnect between government and populace — a more bald-faced dismissal of “the people” as irrelevant to the business of the nation? And we’re still here, in this era of irrelevance.

With the ascendance of Trump, we’ve managed to produce a leader who symbolizes, and even occasionally addresses (or tweets about), the surrealism of our collapsing social and political infrastructure.

The way out of this slowly lethal absurdity is a lot more complex than simply resisting the Trump presidency, so that we can get ourselves back, with a huge sigh of relief, to the pre-Trump status quo.

I suggest, instead, envisioning a different sort of future, beginning with a rethinking of our core mythology and its excruciating limitations: that we are separate sentient beings living on an inanimate, exploitable planet; that it’s every man for himself and winning is everything; that my survival has nothing to do with your survival; that a detached (cynical) rationality is the best tool we have for understanding life and the world that surrounds us.

It’s time to leave the Age of Disconnect. Its achievements are coming back to haunt us.

Who are we?

Charles Eisenstein, in his recent book The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, talks about “an emerging Story of the People that is the defining mythology of a new kind of civilization.” He calls it “the Story of Interbeing.”

The essence of this unwritten story is extraordinarily deep and extraordinarily simple: “That my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational.

“That, therefore, what we do to another, we do to ourselves.”

Such words may be transgressions beyond the boundary established by cynics, but they are not random or abstract. We can feel the connection beyond ourselves:
“Why,” Eisenstein asks, “does it hurt when we hear of another person coming to harm? Why, when we read of mass die-offs of the coral reefs and see their bleached skeletons, do we feel like we’ve sustained a blow? It is because it is literally happening to our selves, our extended selves. . . .

Certainly, as a little introspection will reveal, our desire to help is not coming from a rational calculation that this injustice or that ecological disaster will somehow, someday, threaten our personal well-being. The pain is more direct, more visceral than that. The reason it hurts is because it is literally happening to ourselves.”
Yet somehow we have chopped up the world in which we live into an infinity of separateness, gaining, in the process, control (for some) over other people and dominion, as they say, over the planet. In my last column, I talked about pledging one’s allegiance not to a nation and its arbitrary borders, or to the flag that symbolizes the nation, but to the planet itself and to the future it is our purpose in being here to create.

But what would such a pledge mean? I’m obviously not talking about some rote recitation, but a heartfelt new exploration of the ancient question, who are we? To assist in our approaching this question with adequate seriousness, I summon the words of Harvard-trained neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, who, a decade ago, wrote a book called My Stroke of Insight, about the stroke she suffered when she was 37 years old.

She awoke one morning with something more than a headache, but not knowing what it was, she stepped into the shower as usual: “When the shower droplets beat into my chest like little bullets, I was harshly startled back into . . . reality,” she wrote. “As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued.

“Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am a sea of water bound inside this membranous pouch. Here, in this form, I am a conscious mind and this body is the vehicle through which I am ALIVE!

I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept! I am cellular life, no — I am molecular life with manual dexterity and a cognitive mind!”

Taylor’s stroke recovery meant rebuilding her life. This is where it started — with, you might say, her sudden, visceral awareness of the miracle of being. Somehow we need to expand this awareness into the story of who we are: the story at the core of the future we’re building.


Beware of Digital Dictatorship

SUBHEAD: A “cash ban” is a form of technological dictatorship, in the hands of the world’s billionaires.

By Vandana Shiva on 2 January 2016 for Asian Age -

Image above: An Indian paramilitary soldier asks people to stay in the queue to deposit and exchange discontinued currency notes at a bank in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. From (http://www.cp24.com/world/millions-crowd-banks-to-exchange-currency-after-india-demonetizes-high-value-bills-1.3157742).

As 2017 begins and we flounder in our mad rush to force all of India into a digital economy overnight, it is worth pausing and reflecting on what the digital economy is, who controls the platforms and lines as well as some basic concepts about money and technology which have moulded our lives and freedoms, based on patented systems that are failing the people of “West”.

Obsolete systems are moulding our patterns of work and our wellbeing — as a very large country, and as an ancient civilisation — into a cast that is observably too small.

We live in times where the non-working rent collectors and speculators have emerged as the richest billionaires.

Meanwhile, the hard working honest people, like farmers, workers in self-organised economies (mistakenly called unorganised and informal) are not just being pushed into deep poverty, they are, in fact, being criminalised by labelling their self-organised economic systems as “black”.

The Swadeshi economy is being labelled as the “shadow economy”.

“Short term pain for long term gain” has become the slogan for the dictated transition to a digital economy.

But the pain is not just short term, the pain of millions of honest Indians who contribute to a truthful economy, wasting days on end, sacrificing their work, their livelihoods, their means of living, to standing at ATMs and juggling denominations and news reports.

In rural India daily mile-long walks to banks have become commonplace, whereas rural communities would interact with the “financial world” a handful of times annually.

In Venezuela — where the exact same circus has come to town — there have been riots. On the contrary, in India, we have stood patiently in lines, in the misguided hope that the fabric of the Indian economy will be cleansed of the black money. The economy has been laundered, and the stains have spread.

To assess the long-term gain, we need to ask basic questions: Who will benefit from this so-called long-term gain?

Ten of the richest billionaires have made money riding on patents and monopolies over the tools of information and network technology. In effect, they are rent collectors of the digital economy, who have collected very large rents, at very high frequency, in a very short time.

Bill Gates and company made money through patents on software that were developed by brilliant people; they merely own the “workshop” — owning all the work that happens under their roof. Mr Gates used his monopoly to eliminate rivals and then to ensure that no matter what kind of computer you wanted it had to have Microsoft windows.

If at this point, you think to yourself: “What about Apple Inc?” a quick search will enlighten you — Alphabet (Google), Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft controlling shares are held by the same handful of private investment funds. This VC-armada is led by Vanguard Inc.

In an honest economy, such behaviour would be illegal, but in India we have baptised it as “smart”.
Do we need a Mark Zuckerberg to have friends and be able to talk to them?

Communication and community, friendships and networks are the very basis of society. Facebook has not provided us with “the social network”.

Mr Zuckerberg has crowd-sourced the social network of the world from us. Our relationships are the source of “big data”, the new commodity in the digital world. Information technology seeks to rent information, sourced from us to us.

Digitalisation has spread to all areas. Let us not forget that many multi-national companies are playing a big role in pushing chemicals and GMOs on Africa, and patents on new GMO technologies and digital patents on the biodiversity of life on earth. This big seed grab was stalled at the recent convention on biodiversity meetings in Cancun.

John Naughton, a professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University and author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet has named the digital moghuls “robber barons” of our age.

As he perceptively observes in the Guardian: “In social networking Mark Zuckerberg has cunningly inserted himself (via his hardware and software) into every online communication that passes between his 900 million subscribers, to the point where Facebook probably knows that two people are about to have an affair before they do.

And because of the nature of networks, if we’re not careful we could wind up with a series of winners who took all: one global bookstore; one social network; one search engine; one online multimedia store and so on.”

It already is one digital dictatorship. And we need to be asking far more questions than we are asking. We have blindly elevated means — which should be democratically chosen — into an end unto themselves. Money and tools are means, they need to be utilised with wisdom and responsibility to higher ends such as the protection of nature, the wellbeing of all and the common good.

Two sets of means come together in what is now declared the real reason for demonetisation — the digital economy. Money making and tools for money making have become the new religion and the government policy has been reduced to the facilitation of the imposition of the digital empires of the new moghuls.

Why else is every department of government directing its energy at making Indians “digitally literate”, precisely at a time where people in technological societies are turning to India to learn her wisdom, her deep values of “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhna”, and the ability to live in community as one Earth Family — Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam?

We haven’t learnt from the atomised, alienated, lonely individuals that the souls of Western societies have been reduced to. The digital economy is a design for atomisation, for separation, to allow Indians to become individual consumers with abundant “red money” — credit.

Imposing the digital economy through a “cash ban” is a form of technological dictatorship, in the hands of the world’s billionaires.

Economic diversity and technological pluralism are India’s strength and it is the “hard cash” that insulated India from the global market’s “dive into the red” of 2008.

Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings about resisting empire non-violently, while creating truthful and real economies in the hands of people, for regaining freedom, have never been more relevant.

Wealth is the state of wellbeing; it is not money. It is not cash. Money has no value in and of itself.

Money is merely a means of exchange, it is a promise. As the notes we exchange state: “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of…” and the promise is made by the governor of the Reserve Bank. On that promise and trust rests an entire economy, from the local to the national level. At the very least, the demonetization circus has “busted the trust” in the Indian economy.

In the digital economy there is no trust, only one-way control of global banks, of those who own and control digital networks, and those who can make money mysteriously through digital “tricks” — the owners of the global exchange.

How else could the exchange traded funds like Vanguard be the biggest investors in all major corporations, from Monsanto to Bayer, from Coca Cola to Pepsi, from Microsoft to Facebook, from Wells Fargo to Texaco?

When I exchange Rs 100 even a 100 times it remains Rs 100. In the digital world those who control the exchange, through digital and financial networks, make money at every step of the 100 exchanges. That is the how the digital economy has created the billionaire class of one per cent, which controls the economy of the 100 per cent.

The foundation of the real economy is work. Gandhi following Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin called it “bread labour” — labour that creates bread that sustains life. Writing in Young India in 1921, he wrote: “God created man to work for his food, and said that those who ate without work were thieves.”

Writing in the Harijan, in 1935, he cited the Gita and the Bible, for his understanding of the duty of bread labour. For him ahimsa (non-violence) were intimately linked to work, he identified “wealth without work” among the seven deadly sins. It is the bills of domination that the government should be banning, not merely the bills of denomination.

• Vandana Shiva trained as a physicist prior to dedicating her life to the protection of India's biodiversity and food security. She is the author of numerous books and the recipient of numerous awards.


Automation - whatta bitch!

SUBHEAD: Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics are combining to make people superfluous.

By Juan Wilson in 4 January 2017 for Island Breath -

Image above: Concept graphic for movie "Robot Overlords".. From (http://cinefex.com/blog/robot-overlords/).

The previous four posts on this website deal with automated technology replacing human beings in areas where thought, skill and experience have been required for a task to be completed.
In the few decades robotics and software have automated patterned repetitive tasks in manufacturing - most notably in automobile production. Through the 1950's and 60s Detroit autoworkers were the envy of the world. Members of the United Auto Workers could command good wages - enough for a single worker to own a home, support a family and send the kids off to college.

Today those jobs have been automated and largely sent out of the country to where people are cheaper to operate.  Detroit is a shell of itself, reinventing itself as a post industrial city with much of its population lost and its suburbs blending into urban gardens and wilderness.

Many of the nine-to-five jobs humans have had have disappeared. But as the articles above demonstrate there is another wave of human replacement coming on right now.

Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla, Amazon and others want into an autonomous vehicle future. They are planning for automobile, drones and other technologies to replace a wide spectrum of human work not requiring an advanced education: that includes not only transportation and manufacturing, but food service and retailing.

The fast food industry is racing to replace human workers with fully automated service. Basically vending machines for burgers and fries. What's a teenager to do for work? Design a commercially successful iPod app?

The retailers like Walmart and Home Depot now encourage shoppers to check themselves out at automated teller stations. (Incidentally, I refuse to use them and seek out a human teller at these sites and tell them I'm glad to see them behind the counter).

Is this a danger or threat to humans? I would say it well may be. For decades science fiction writers and futurists have perceived a future where our technology becomes self aware and realizes the weakness and self destructive nature of humans (particularly in great numbers). Remember HAL in the movie "2001: A Space Odessy" or SKYNET in "The Terminator"?

As automation and artificial intelligence develop higher capacities that our technology may realize, as many humans have - that our behavior in the ecosystem is suicidal. At that point we humans may be seen as an unsupportable cost in the overall system.

Humans require way too many resources, too much energy, too much food and too much entertainment in order to be satisfied. If the technology can get along without, truckers, clerks, and factory workers why should it put up with the unemployed, retired, handicapped and children? In other words - Who Needs Us? Certainly not the elite 1% who now have their clutches on the vast majority of wealth.

Image above: Robot staff of eighteen cooks, serves and entertains at a restaurant in Harbin, China. From (http://www.eater.com/2012/6/28/6570185/all-robot-staff-serves-cooks-at-chinas-robot-restaurant).

I am not suggesting that we all go 'Unabomber" route. If you don't remember the Unibomber was Ted Kaczynski, he was mathematical prodigy that abandoned a promising academic career  at UC Berkely in 1969.

Kaczynski moved to an isolated cabin in Montana. Between 1978 and 1995 he killed three people, and injured 23 others, in a nationwide bombing campaign targeting people involved with modern technology.

Kaczynski was driven mad by his realizations about where industrialism was taking humanity. As twisted as his actions were I see the wisdom of his wide-ranging social critique "The Unibomber Manifesto(https://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/unabom-manifesto-1.html). He opposed industrialization and modern technology, and advocated advancing a nature-centered form of anarchism.

We have been advocating for a decade that we lower consumption, get off the grid and becoming self reliant. It may not be too late - but at this point I'd advise hurrying.

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Capitalism is a form of Cancer 10/7/16
Ea O Ka Aina: Lost in the Blogosphere? 8/21/16
Ea O Ka Aina: Oases on a future Eaarth 6/28/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Building the Garden of Eden 5/25/15
Ea O Ka Aina: The Hail Mary Pass 8/17/14
Ea O Ka Aina: Worse than you think 5/21/14
Ea O Ka Aina: The New Game 11/10/13
Ea O Ka Aina: The Wolf & the Cherry Tree 2/16/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Food, Water, Energy & Shelter 1/31/13
Ea O Ka Aina: Embrace the Change 7/24/12
Ea O Ka Aina: Doom & Gloom 7/17/12
Ea O Ka Aina: Power from the People 4/3/12
Ea O Ka Aina: The Titanic or Noah's Ark 3/4/12
Ea O Ka Aina: The Hero's Way 1/13/12
Ea O Ka Aina: Trick or Treat! 10/31/11
Ea O Ka Aina: 911 Aftermath - Our Self Defeat 9/10/11
Ea O Ka Aina: In a van - Down by the river 8/23/11
Ea O Ka Aina: The American Unraveling 7/29/11
Ea O Ka Aina: All Aboard! 12/9/09


Robots to replace truck drivers

SUBHEAD: One of the few decent paying jobs for those without college degrees is threatened.

By Natalie Kitroeff on 25 September 2106 for L.A. Times -

Image above: Two Otto self driving semi-tractors sit in garage. They have been test driving with autonomous technology up and down Interstate 280 and the 101 Freeway. Photo by Tony Avelar. From original article.

Trucking paid for Scott Spindola to take a road trip down the coast of Spain, climb halfway up Machu Picchu, and sample a Costa Rican beach for two weeks. The 44-year-old from Covina now makes up to $70,000 per year, with overtime, hauling goods from the port of Long Beach. He has full medical coverage and plans to drive until he retires.

But in a decade, his big rig may not have any need for him.

Carmaking giants and ride-sharing upstarts racing to put autonomous vehicles on the road are dead set on replacing drivers, and that includes truckers. Trucks without human hands at the wheel could be on American roads within a decade, say analysts and industry executives.

At risk is one of the most common jobs in many states, and one of the last remaining careers that offer middle-class pay to those without a college degree. There are 1.7 million truckers in America, and another 1.7 million drivers of taxis, buses and delivery vehicles. That compares with 4.1 million construction workers.

While factory jobs have gushed out of the country over the last decade, trucking has grown and pay has risen. Truckers make $42,500 per year on average, putting them firmly in the middle class.

On Sept. 20, the Obama administration put its weight behind automated driving, for the first time releasing federal guidelines for the systems. About a dozen states already created laws that allow for the testing of self-driving vehicles.

But the federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will ultimately have to set rules to safely accommodate 80,000-pound autonomous trucks on U.S. highways.

In doing so, the feds have placed a bet that driverless cars and trucks will save lives. But autonomous big rigs, taxis and Ubers also promise to lower the cost of travel and transporting goods.

It would also be the first time that machines take direct aim at an entire class of blue-collar work in America. Other workers who do things you may think cannot be done by robots — like gardeners, home builders and trash collectors — may be next.

“We are going to see a wave and an acceleration in automation, and it will affect job markets,” said Jerry Kaplan, a Stanford lecturer and the author of “Humans Need Not Apply” and “Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know,” two books that chronicle the effect of robotics on labor.

“Long-haul truck driving is a great example, where there isn’t much judgment involved and it’s a fairly controlled environment,” Kaplan said.

Robots’ march into vehicles, factories, stores, and offices could also profoundly deepen inequality. Research has shown that artificial intelligence helps erase jobs that require basic skills and creates more roles for highly educated people.

“Automation tends to replace low-wage jobs with high-wage jobs,” said James Bessen, a lecturer at the Boston University School of Law who researches the effect of innovation on labor.

“The people whose skills become obsolete are low-wage workers, and to the extent that it’s difficult for them to acquire new skills, it affects inequality.”

Trucking will likely be the first type of driving to be fully automated – meaning there’s no one at the wheel. One reason is that long-haul big rigs spend most of their time on highways, which are the easiest roads to navigate without human intervention.

But there’s also a sweeter financial incentive for automating trucks. Trucking is a $700-billion industry, in which a third of costs go to compensating drivers.

“If you can get rid of the drivers, those people are out of jobs, but the cost of moving all those goods goes down significantly,” Kaplan said.

The companies pioneering these new technologies have tried to sell cost savings as something that will be good for trucking employers and workers.

Otto, a self-driving truck company started by former Google engineers and executives, pitches its system as a source of new income for drivers who will be able to spend more time in vehicles that can drive solo as they rest.

Uber bought the San Francisco-based company in August.


Uber robot car misses red light

SUBHEAD: As Uber launches self driving car in San Francisco incident causes DMV to shut it down.

By Alex Davies on 14 December 2016 for Wired.com -

Image above: Still frame from dash camera video of Uber car blowing through red light in San Francisco in December 2016. From video below.

[IB Publisher's note: I suspect the drivers will take the brunt of blame for mishaps during the phasing in of robotic cars that will eventually replace them. I doubt we'll hear much mea culpa from Uber about not getting permission to start this program without DMV permits.]

An Uber equipped to drive itself ran a red light in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood Wednesday morning, per a YouTube video apparently shot from a local Luxor cab and reported by The Examiner:
In the video, a Volvo XC90 SUV decked out in the sensors Uber uses to see the world plowed through the intersection roughly three seconds after the light went red, and as a pedestrian was stepping into the crosswalk.

In a statement, Uber spokesperson Chelsea Kohler said the car was being operated by its human driver at the time and had no passengers aboard, and that Uber has suspended that driver while it investigates.2

Even if it was a human at the wheel, it’s bad news on the day Uber announced it’s welcoming passengers aboard its fleet of driverless cars in the city, and that it’s doing so without filing for an autonomous testing permit with the California DMV. Declining to do that likely means Uber doesn’t have to publicly report things like crashes and “disengagements”—when the human operator takes control to make sure the car operates safely.

In a letter sent to Uber self-driving chief Anthony Levandowski on Wednesday afternoon, California DMV counsel Brian Soublet said that if Uber does not immediately confirm it will stop testing and seek a permit, the DMV will take legal action and seek an injunction. Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.3

Video above: The reality! What appears to be an Uber driverless car blows through red light in San Francisico. From (https://youtu.be/_CdJ4oae8f4) and original article.
Charles Rotter, operations manager at Luxor, confirmed to the Examiner that the video was from Wednesday.

“Yes, the dashcam of one of our ramp vans at 10:37 this am,” he wrote, in an email.

The cab pulls up to a red light on Third Street in South of Market, by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A pack of cars flies through a yellow light, and one even drives through the first moment of a red light.

About three seconds after the light turned red, an Uber self-driving car can apparently be seen traveling through the red light at moderate speed as a pedestrian walks across the intersection on the right side of the intersection.
While the video does show an Uber vehicle driving through a red light, it is not clear whether the vehicle was self-driven at the time.

The cameras at the top of the vehicle indicate that it is capable of operating without a driver, but such vehicles can still be driven by humans — and it is entirely possible that this video shows the result of human error.

It is difficult to see inside the vehicle's window as it runs the red light, but a still shot of the image appears to show a face reflecting off the windshield:

Of course, this is not definitive proof that the vehicle was being driven by a human at the time of the incident. The face may show a person in the passenger's seat, or it may not be a face at all.  Uber confirmed in a statement to TechCrunch that the incident was due to human error:
This incident was due to human error. This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers. This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers. The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate.
Later in the afternoon of 14 December 2016, the state of California's Department of Motor Services ordered Uber to halt its self-driving car rides, effective immediately, as its "autonomous vehicles" were operating without the proper permits:
The DMV requires a permit to use autonomous vehicles on public roads. Uber, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, had previously argued that its technology was exempt.

“The rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them,” wrote Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, in a blog post published early Wednesday morning, before the DMV letter came out. “For us, it’s still early days, and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”

Video above: The smooze! A promotional spot introducing Uber's driverless program in San Francisico. From (https://youtu.be/OKJK3_XIGD4) and original article..

So far, twenty companies have reportedly obtained the permits to test autonomous cars on California roads.


Robots taking over Amazon

SUBHEAD: CEO Jeff Bezos will not stop until Amazon is one giant, automated, and fully self-contained system.

By Tyler Durden on 3 January 2016 for Zero Hedge -

Image above: Amazon bought the company, Kiva Systems, that make the robot is has deployed in its warehouses. From (http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-doubled-the-number-of-kiva-robots-2015-10).

Over the past few years, as Amazon's distribution network has grown at a near-exponential pace, so has its workforce. As the chart below shows, starting in 2010 and continuing through the third quarter, Amazon has seen a staggering increase in its mostly part-time employment: from 28,300 to over 306,000.

However, always seeking ways to cut a few basis points from its razor thin retail margins, Jeff Bezos has discovered that many, if not all, of these part-time laborers, minimum wage as they may be, are expendable, and the company is actively growing its robotic "workforce" in preparation for the moment when most of those 300,000+ workers become fully redundant.

As the Seattle Times reports, Amazon now has some 45,000 robots across 20 fulfillment centers.

That’s a bigger headcount than the armed forces of the Netherlands. It’s also a 50% increase from last year’s holiday season, when the company had 30,000 robots working alongside 230,000 humans.

For now, the growth rate is keeping pace with that of human additions: from Q4 of 2015 through Q3 of 2016, Amazon reported a 46%, 12-month increase on average in staffers. However, as the pace of carbon-based employment eventually plateaus, that of new robot recruits will only continue to rise.

As the Times notes, the surge in Amazon’s robots showcases the company’s love for automation. In 2012 the company bought Kiva Systems, a Boston-area robotics firm that invented the flat, toaster-like warehouse robots that now populate Amazon’s warehouses. There are also other kinds of automata, such as arms that carry pallets.

For now, the 300K+ workers are mostly safe as much of the stowing and picking of items, which require fine motor skills and discernment, is done by human brains and hands. That is changing, however, as robots become increasingly more sophisticated.

“We’ve changed, again, the automation, the size, the scale many times, and we continue to learn and grow there,” Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said of the robots in a conference call last April.

The executive said he couldn’t point to any “general trends” in the adoption of robotics, because some fulfillment centers are clearly “fully outfitted” in robots and “some don’t for economic reasons — maybe the volume’s not perfect for robot volume.”

However, as minimum wages continue creeping higher, the "economic reasons" to boost robotic volumes will dominate, and most if not all fulfillment centers will become "fully outfitted."

Of course, warehouse automation is just a part of Amazon's grand vision of maximizing logistical and supply-chain efficiencies, as well as eventually doing away with bothersome paychecks for employees.

Several weeks ago, Amazon announced that it had made its first automated drone delivery in the UK.

More recently, the company obtained a patent for an "airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery", i.e., a giant flying drone mothership zeppelin warehouse.

By now, it is becoming clear that Bezos will not stop until Amazon is one giant, automated, and fully self-contained system, along the lines of the following video showcasing how early-generation Kiva robots have already displaced thousands of human workers.

Within a few years, expect all of Amazon's warehouses to look virtually the same.

Video above:  Kiva robots at Amazon "Fullfillment" Center gathering ordered items for humans that sort for packing - for now. From (https://youtu.be/quWFjS3Ci7A).


Robots culling Libraries

SUBHEAD: Automated software culling endangered titles drive librarians to fake patrons checking out books.

By Cory Doctorow on 2 Janury 2016 for Boing Boing-

Image above: Mashup of photo of  PR2 Robot reads the Mythical Man-Month by Troy Straszheim, superimposed on photo of The Leeds Library in Yorkshire, England, by Michael D Beckwith. From original article.

Two employees at the East Lake County Library created a fictional patron called Chuck Finley -- entering fake driver's license and address details into the library system -- and then used the account to check out 2,361 books over nine months in 2016, in order to trick the system into believing that the books they loved were being circulated to the library's patrons, thus rescuing the books from automated purges of low-popularity titles.

Library branch supervisor George Dore was suspended for his role in the episode; he said that he was trying to game the algorithm because he knew that these books would come back into vogue and that his library would have to spend extra money re-purchasing them later. He said that other libraries were doing the same thing.

This is datification at its worst: as Cennydd Bowles writes, the pretense that the data can tell you what to optimize as well as how to optimize it makes systems incoherent -- it's the big data version of "teaching to the test."

The library wants to be efficient at stocking books its patrons will enjoy, so it deploys software to measure popularity, and raises the outcomes of those measurements over the judgment of the skilled professionals who acquire and recommend books, who work with patrons every day.

Instead of being a tool, the data becomes a straightjacket: in order to get the system to admit the professional judgment of librarians, the librarians have to manufacture data to put their thumbs on its scales.

The point of the library becomes moving books by volume (which is only one of the several purposes of a library), and "the internal framing of users shifts. Employees start to see their users not as raison d’ĂȘtre but as subjects, as means to hit targets.

People become masses, and in the vacuum of values and vision, unethical design is the natural result. Anything that moves the needle is fair game: no one is willing to argue with data."

Software is not objective. The designers of the library's software made a subjective decision to take the measurements they are taking, and to respond to them in the way they are responding to them.

The librarians who'd use the software are treated as adversaries, not allies -- they are there to be controlled by the software, not informed by it. Just like the nurses who assign junior staffers to hit the spacebar at 10 second intervals to keep their terminals from re-prompting them for a password, the librarians who could not override the software by executive edict resorted to chicanery to get their jobs done.

That's the important takeaway here: these librarians didn't monkeywrench their software for personal gain. They did it because they wanted to make the system better, to teach it how to weight the circulation data to reflect the on-the-ground intelligence and historical perspective they had on their libraries, their collections and their patrons.

Science fiction has grappled with this exact problem in the past: Connie Willis's 20-year-old classic novella Bellwether features a patron (a social scientist who specializes in fads!) who goes to the library every week to check out titles that she knows to be out of vogue, but significant, to trick the library systems into retaining them.

The problem here isn't the collection of data: it's the blind adherence to data over human judgment, the use of data as a shackle rather than a tool.

As the article in the Orlando Sentinel hints, this is because "money wars" have made enemies out of the city and its librarians -- and as this episode highlights, there is no good way to proceed amidst that enmity.

Just as treating teachers as lazy welfare bums who must be measured with standardized tests has lowered educational standards and driven out the best teachers, so will any other system that treats employees as problems rather than solutions engender a continuous, spiraling arms race that will never solve the problem.
Dore and library assistant Scott Amey created “Chuck Finley” simply to save certain books from being ditched at the library, according to Dore and inspector’s general’s notes.

Records show that dozens of books were checked out and then checked back in again all in the same hour.

The fictional Chuck Finley was named after “a ballplayer,” according to the inspector’s notes. Chuck Finley is a retired major league baseball pitcher who played mostly for the California and Los Angeles Angels during a 17-year career.

Dore said in interviews with the inspector general’s office that it was happening elsewhere but didn’t provide specifics.

“He did know that other libraries have had ‘dummy’ patron cards and institutional cards,” according to the interview notes. “There was a lot of bad blood between the libraries because of money wars.” The inspector general’s report said creation of a fake library card “amounts to the creation of a false public record.”

See source here:
To save books, librarians create fake 'reader' to check out titles [Jason Ruiter/Orlando Sentinel]