Loren MeansQ: I ran across the interview Charles Platt did with you in Lynchburg in 1984 for Fantasy & Science Fiction (actually, I got the magazine out of the free bin in front of Green Apple Books, where it had been placed by a black guy with dreadlocks and a priest's collar). I felt sympathetic toward the old you . you'd lost your teaching job and obviously hated Lynchburg. Do you still feel as alienated as you did back in Lynchburg? A: Iíve been here in California for eighteen years now. Itís felt like home from the start. Today at the supermarket, I was thinking how back in Lynchburg the men would talk about it for a week if they saw anyone like the blonde, buffed, shades-wearing women we got all over the place out here. Itís a good deal. In February my wife and I were up in the Sierras near Carson Pass, man, there was seven, eight feet of snow. Beautiful back-country skiing, alone in the woods, the snow-capped knobs like giant mounds of whipped cream. And if Iím sore from the skiing today, and I go to yoga class down in the village where I live. California. I have an interesting job teaching computer science at San Jose State, and the locals here respect me for working at their cityís university . thatís another thing about the Lynchburg days, I was unemployed. Iím the opposite of alienated anymore. I looked up Kit Carson of Carson Pass on the Web today, he was born in Kentucky, just like me. We made it to the coast. This said, I occasionally miss the dawdling small-town pace of Lynchburg. Linoleum. Space heaters. Oddly enough, my social life there was richer than it is out here. Everyone lived only a few blocks away. It was kind of fun being as wild as I was back then, too . at least it seems that way in rosy retrospect . though in fact I know it was often a living hell. But I had some good times with the bad. The day Platt came to interview me was fun. It made me feel like Iíd finally arrived. Q: Last Monday I saw an interview with Dr. Cynthia Brezeal, the head of the Robotics Project at MIT. She says that robots can't make viable decisions without emotions, but that robot emotions might not be the same as human emotions, any more than dolphin emotions would be. Your reaction? A: One of the ideas in AI is that emotions can be viewed as weights that you assign to certain situations. In the simplest model, youíd just have a single I_LIKE function that returns values ranging from, say, minus ten to plus ten. And then when youíre planning what to do next, you might simulate a half dozen alternative courses of action, evaluate the I_LIKE function on each of the possible scenariosí outcomes, and then pick the course of action that leads to the situation with the highest ďI_LIKEĒ rating. You execute that course of action . clik, whirr, buzz. then look ahead your new situation and simulate a half dozen follow-up scenarios and so on. The catch is that although we can call the I_LIKE function an ďemotion,Ē it seems like a dry computation without all the visceral hormonal gut feel that goes with a human beingís liking something. I_LIKE(You), but do YOU_LIKE(Me)? I sometimes think that whole logical way of trying to do AI is hopelessly wrong. AI never really seems to get anywhere, and the actually existing robots canít do much. Thereís a persistent tendency for us to very seriously underestimate how much design has gone into our brains in the course of our beloved Gaiaís yottaflop parallel computation running on a quintillion processors for several billion years. Q: Creativity is induced in computers through the use of randomness, which you discuss in your Wolfram review. But humans have an unconscious which contributes to creativity, and I don't think that's quite the same thing as randomness. Dreams, for instance, probably have a random neuronal component, but then they are associated with the dreamer's unconscious memories and desires and fantasies. Is the unconscious an element of your conception of robots? A: Why do you keep asking about robots? Frankly Iím a lot more interested in mollusks from the fourth dimension. That was a theme in last yearís Spaceland, and thereís a space cuttlefish in my new galaxy-spanning epic, Frek and the Elixir, just coming out from Tor Books. But, all right, these days I actually have been pondering that hoary old chestnut, that road apple, that war horse, that battle axe, that turd in a punchbowl, that zit on the butt, that oxymoronic category mistake, that glistering gallstone, viz., can computers think? Iím back in this pickedover union hall sweeping together a non-fiction book on computers and reality, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The mighty fruit of my decades of labor in the dark satanic mills of Silicon Valley. Yes, I think any machine intelligence would have what you might call an unconscious component. But what is the unconscious? You might think of it as the endless spinning out of computational variants from your known data. Like a cellular automaton rule scrolling down the brainscreen. What seems random in your mind isnít really random, itís merely complex. Computers have access to the same kinds of computational complexity, so in principle a machine could be acting like a person. But I donít think we can build such a machine. Programs are writ by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. Q: John Searle says that we can't simulate consciousness in computers because we don't know what consciousness is. What do you think? A: John Searle is a likable fellow, but his classic Chinese Room argument against computational consciousness is dead wrong. Itís just wishful thinking to prop up a foregone and fondly held conclusion . itís like heís imagining Earth to be the center of the universe, or denying that humans evolved from the apes, or pretending heís not gonna die. Two years ago I spent a few days with John Searle in Felliniís home town of Rimini, on the Adriatic coast in northern Italy. We were there to get awards from the Italian government, which was amazing and wonderful. I never got around to arguing with John about his pet ideas. Heís a hard guy to interrupt. I have to admit that the remark you quote has a certain kick to it. We really donít have any theory of consciousness, not even a bad one, so thereís some point in saying we canít simulate it. My natural inclination is to say that, dude, everything is conscious, even a rock, so if you get a nice complex program that imitates people, itíll be conscious for free, just because itís a process in the physical world. But not everyoneís going to satisfied with that kind of view . which is technically known as hylozoism. My mad scientist friend Nick Herbert has a more sophisticated way of saying something like the same thing. (See his brilliant piece on ďQuantum Tantra,Ē www.southerncrossreview.org/16/herbert.essay.htm) Following this sage at a respectful distance, I shovel up some elephant poop and form it into a dialectic triad thus: (Thesis) Upon introspection we feel there is a mental residue that isnít captured by any scientific system; we feel ourselves to be quite unlike machines. This is the sense of having a soul. (Antithesis) But the slowly advancing work in AI, the prospect of using genetic algorithms, and considerations of degrees of computability seem to indicate that any clearly described human behavior can be emulated by a machine . if not by an actually constructible machine, then at least by a theoretically possible machine. Where is, then, the missing soul? (Herbertís Synthesis) The ďsoulĒ can be given a scientific meaning as oneís immediate perception of oneís uncollapsed wave function, particularly as it is entangled with the uncollapsed universal wave function of the cosmos. (Two possible conclusions) Either (a) machines, qua physical objects, have uncollapsed wave functions as well, so they too have the same kind of ďsoulĒ that we have or (b) there is something so far unique about how we manage to couple our wave functional experiences with our logical reasoning. Being a hylozoist automatist, I believe in option (a). Roger Penrose, on the other hand, likes to argue for option (b), suggesting that microtubules in the cytoskeleton might be carrying out quantum computations. And now, really, thatís enough science. Letís talk about writing. Q: One way that Science Fiction tends to differ from the Mystery genre is that Mystery writers often tend to write about the same protagonist from novel to novel (and sometimes have recurring villains). Science Fiction writers tend not to do this. Why is that? I'm thinking about Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Robert Parker's Spenser and Hawk, etc. A: Youíre right, I canít think of many science fiction series about the same character. Unless you count the Star Trek novelizations? In Germany thereís a series called Perry Rhodan, they say that every possible SF idea eventually appears in a Perry Rhodan novel. Spider Robinson has his Callahanís Bar series. One reason itís hard to continue a series of adventures about science fiction is that very often the result of a novel is that the world at the end is quite different from the world at the beginning. So itís hard to do a reset. Certainly my Ware novels are a series but, horrors, the characters change and age and grow, so itís not quite what you have in mind. Generally I like to avoid repeating myself, although once in a while, it feels good to redo a theme just to try and bring it to a new level. I have written a certain number of transreal novels about characters something like me, though I tend to always give my heroes different names. I havenít done a transreal book since Saucer Wisdom. where the main character was called Rudy Rucker. Nick Herbert was in Saucer Wisdom, too, he was one-third of Frank Shook. I could maybe do something transreal next time out, Iím thinking of a novel inspired by my experiences among mathematicians and computer scientists, both in grad school, and then out in the teaching world. A kind of life story of two characters who keep ending up together. Give it an SF spin . which is the ďtransĒ part of transrealism. Set part one at Rutgers in New Jersey in the 1970s, part two in the far future with aliens, and maybe in part three one of them is an aging computer science professor in Y2K Silicon Valley. Q: I love the way Berenice and Emul address each other in Wetware, and I'm taken with the way you float between tenses in the first chapter of White Light. Do you intend to continue with such language experiments? A: I always have fun with the language. People donít always realize how great Jack Kerouac was at playing with words . I learned a lot of that from his work. Often as not, my aliens sound like beatniks. But not in a gauche kind of way, you donít want to just ape a few obvious mannerisms. To make it wild and fun, you have to channel some outrť spirit, get yourself into a whole different frame of mind. When I was writing Emulís speeches, Iíd in fact flip through a copy of like Visions of Cody by Kerouac, getting that rhythm going. I enjoy the style of high academic parlance as well, thatís fun to do. And old-fashioned literary style. When I was writing Bereniceís lines I was flipping through the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Some of my computer science students donít speak English very well, and thatís another great input for making characters talk in novel ways. I love any new kind of youth slang that I can pick up on, though thatís harder now with the kids grown and moved out. When Iím out on the sidewalks, Iím all ears. Picking the person and tense to write a book in is always a big decision. The easiest default option is first person past tense, which is easy to write and to read. I wanted to write my Bruegel novel third person in the present tense, like narrating a movie, but my editors didnít like the idea. Pynchonís Mason and Dixon uses that mode, he gets away with it, in the supreme masterís hands an odd style doesnít obtrude. I may still try and do it myself. Q: Speaking of style, I sometimes think of you as your writing as ďdegree zero.Ē Itís transparent, almost artless. A: Thatís an effect I try for. It might relate to the fact that I write non-fiction as well; I like to explain things as simply as possible. I like for my writing to be absolutely clear. I rewrite a lot, sometimes itís like a programmer cleaning up his code. Not that I donít like to go for the occasional purple patch or deranged farrago. As you will have noticed in the course of this interview! Q: In your new Frek and the Elixir, you postulate a universal dark matter throughout the universe called ďkennerĒ that can be crafted by certain individuals by persuading the dark matter to manifest itself and assume certain characteristics. I find this conception fascinating. Could you elaborate on it? A: In SF thereís a tradition of drawing on little-known new physical phenomena for special effects. In the 1940s it was radiation and radio. In the 1980s I myself used quarks a lot. These days dark matter is whatís strange. While I was writing Frek, I read an article in Science saying that only about five percent of the mass in our universe is gardenvariety matter, and all the rest is the so-called dark matter and dark energy. I was talking this over with my man Nick Herbert, and he said, ďMaybe the dark matter is consciousness.Ē And then it hit me that, yeah, I could use dark matter to provide a parascientific justification for giving my characters the useful ability to make something out of nothing. I used the name ďkennerĒ because I have an old friend called Kenny Turan, and I automatically smile whenever I think of his name. He was my roommate in college, he was the first Kenny Iíd met. Actually, in high-school, my friends and I for some reason thought of Kenny as a very strange name, it was a word weíd to shout out of car windows when we were, like, mooning people. ďKennah!Ē or ďKennah Bone!Ē The longer version came from a Little Richard song where he yells ďskin and bone,Ē and it sounds like ďKennah Bone!Ē Thereís the Ken and Barbie vibe too. you might remember that in Wetware I had this evil robot -controlled human character called Ken Doll. Also, of course, Kenner is the name of a toy manufacturer, which fits in with cosmic superstuff that you can playfully craft into anything you want. Face it, dark matter kenner sets off a richer chain of associations than does a phallic magic wand . although, come to think of it, I have wand-like things called ďallasĒ in my books Saucer Wisdom and Realware. The alla-wands work via something I call femtotechnology. By turning neutrons into protons or vice-versa, they can transmute matter and turn, like, straw into gold. But crafting kenner is better . you donít even need any regular matter to start with. Instead youíre rotating the invisible dark matter though a higher dimension to make it real. Iím an SF writer, and part of my game is to always have some kind of cock-eyed science explanation, no matter what I do. And always remember that B.S., M.S., and Ph. D. stand for ďbullsh*t,Ē ďmore sh*t,Ē and ďpiled high and deep!Ē You know, itís funny how I keep quoting Nick Herbert in this interview. I guess heís one of the few people I know who says unexpected things. How rare that is, really. We imagine that weíre creative and original, but most of the time weíre just picking, like, Opinion (K) on Issue (3) from the media-mediated monocultural menu. If I donít watch myself, I do it too. The deadness of monoculture is one of my big themes in Frek and the Elixir. Iím hoping that young people will read the book and love it and maybe absorb a little of that message. Q: In his Trillion Year Spree (1986), Brian Aldiss calls you ďa former cartoonist.Ē Is there any truth in that? A: Iím surprised he would have mentioned me, so thatís nice to hear. Iíve been an outsider for so long that I always imagine nobodyís heard of me. In the 1970s, I thought being an underground cartoonist was the coolest thing anyone could ever be. I couldnít believe how great the Zap Comix were, they were simply the funniest, most relevant, most liberating literature Iíd ever seen. I read them over and over, memorizing every frame. And when I couldnít get my hands on new comix fast enough, I was inspired to get some Rapidograph pens and begin drawing an occasional strip of my own called ďWheelie WillieĒ. It used to appear in the student newspaper at Rutgers, The Daily Targum. Sex, politics, drugs, and infinity. Some of the staff didnít want to print it, but I wouldnít let up until they did. My career in a nutshell. Wheelie Willie has a cameo appearance as a character in my novel The Sex Sphereł and he even works as a science popularizer in two fullpage spreads I put into my non-fiction book Infinity and the Mind. One of these days I might scan all those old strips and make a zine. or maybe just put them on-line. No wait, one of these days someone should pay me to do that. The web is a black hole where I end up doing too much work for free. Q: In your recent interview for the San Jose Metro, you say ďI'm trying to sell a proposal for a nonfiction book about computers and the mind...Today it's The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.Ē How is that project going? A: Iím almost half done writing The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, and itís going very well. Iím folding in a lot of my older ideas, but also I keep coming up with interesting new stuff that surprises me. which is what I always hope for when I write non-fiction book. To have the feeling that Iím finally figuring out how things work. The book is under contract to Four Walls Eight Windows, a medium-sized press who published my essay and story collections Seek! and Gnarl! I got a fairly nice deal with them, although it wasnít anything like the kind of deal Iíd been dreaming of. In my vanity, Iíd figured that since (a) Iím such an expert on computation and reality, and (b) Everyone loves my writing, and (c) The notion of reality as a computation is such a vitally important topic, that (d) I would pull in a huge advance and Iíd be able to pay off my mortgage and retire from teaching. I even switched to a new agent, John Brockman, to make the deal. Heís like a specialist at getting big advances for science books. But none of the big houses wanted to publish my book at all, let alone drop a couple of hundred K on me. I still donít fully understand that. it doesnít fit at all with my model of how the world is supposed to be! Maybe my proposal was too complicated. Maybe Iím like this robot running out of a hole in the wall and my voice is a scary high chirp like the sound of a furious bird or a hysterical insect, and meanwhile Iím imagining that Iím coming on all reassuring and philosophical. Waving my byte-stained pincers and feelers. Proffering filthy pictures of cellular automata. And the thirty-something English-major yuppie -hipster corporate publishing types are, like, backing out the door. ďHeís old, isnít he? And crazy. What the hell was that even about?Ē Four Walls Eight Windows has the great virtue of not being part of a conglomerate. Itís owned and run by one guy, John Oakes, who, long may he prosper, thinks Iím an important writer. And I do think The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul is going to be an important book. Maybe the proposal was hard to understand, but thatís because of my working methods. In all honesty, I have a lot of trouble figuring out in advance what Iím going to say. My books gestate, they grow, they emerge. Iíll be done with Lifebox in about a year. Itís probably going to be the last non-fiction science book I write, and Iím trying to make it really fun and interesting and full of amazing ideas. Putting in all the wild stuff I learned and saw over these last twenty years in Californee. And when thatís done, Iím going to write another SF book, maybe that transreal thing about crazy mathematicians and computer scientists with time travel and intergalactic aliens thrown in to crunk up the mix. And if Frek sells well I could do a sequel to it. Weíll see. Iím hoping to keep writing until I canít remember any more, um, you know - words.
Interview to Rudy Rucker for Ylem, Journal of Artists Using Scientists and Technology. San Francisco, 3/17/2004