Episode 18: Transcript
Our Opinions Are Correct Episode 18 — Alien Consciousness
Transcribed by: Keffy Kehrli
Charlie Jane: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct. I’m Charlie Jane Anders, a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science.
Annalee: [00:00:06] And I’m Annalee Newitz, a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:09] In this episode, we’re going to be talking about alien consciousness. Why do so many science fiction stories fantasize about trying to communicate with alien life forms and what does that mean. And how do things change when the alien consciousness is one that we’ve created ourselves through artificial intelligence. Also, we’re going to be talking to an expert on a different kind of alien consciousness. Lisa Margonelli, author of the book Underbug which is all about termites and how they’re inspiring us to think about robots and technology in a different way.
[00:00:39] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Annalee: [00:01:06] So, one of the things in science fiction, especially in science fiction TV, I think, is that we tend to think of aliens as like the people in goofy costumes. They’re the ones who have bad prosthetics on their faces.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:19] They have lovely prosthetics on their faces, Annalee. They’re gorgeous.
Annalee: [00:01:24] Yeah, I always feel like you know, there’s like the French fry nose, or like the bulbous forehead and so, I feel like for a lot of us when we think about aliens and science fiction, that’s where we go. We go like, oh my God, it’s going to be another really terrible looking French fry nose, or the other side of that would be like, oh, it’s going to be an amazing alien designed by H.R. Geiger, wow, it looks so cool. But what we’re talking about here is alien consciousness and alien culture. Which is something that is a lot harder to represent in a lot of ways. And so, how does science fiction do that? How does it try to evoke an alien worldview as opposed to just like, a creature with three mouths which is supposed to be alien just because of all the drool.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:06] Part of what you’re talking about with like aliens on TV shows and aliens in the movies and even in a lot of books is that they’re kind of still people. They’re kind of just like people with weird costumes, with like funny heads. Sometimes they represent different ethnic groups on earth or sometimes they represent different kind of rhetorical positions among humans. Like you have like a race of warriors and that’s kind of—they’re kind of commenting on warlike cultures on earth or our own tendency to be warlike. Even book science fiction—even written science fiction has often frequently depicted aliens as being just humans with a twist, or as being some kind of monster, like in H.R. Geiger, like in Alien.
[00:02:51] But the idea of actually trying to understand an alien’s consciousness gets into all sorts of interesting things about how different can a thought process be before it’s incomprehensible for us. Really what it does is it allows us to think about different ways of being human, because of course, aliens are always kind of us through a distorting mirror or through a distorting lens. When you have an alien species, they’re always kind of commenting on human beings in some way, and they’re always kind of—like how H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is really about imperialism and about humans invading other humans. The British project of colonialism through the lens of aliens coming to earth and attacking us. Often aliens are metaphors for something to do with humans. But, you do get stories going back decades, definitely going back to the ‘60s, but I think even earlier, which attempt to reckon with the idea of a consciousness that’s really really different from us.
Stanislaw Lem, the Polish author, frequently in his novels would have alien life forms that were completely incomprehensible to humans and had such a different viewpoint that we couldn’t even understand them. For example, one of his most famous stories, Solaris, was made into a movie where basically, it’s this guy goes to a planet where the entire ocean is one sentient creature. And, actually, here’s a clip of George Clooney from the 2002 remake talking to the sentient ocean in the guise of one of his old friends.
Solaris Clip: [00:04:17] What does Solaris want from us?
Why do you think it has to want something?
Charlie Jane: [00:04:25] And what I like about that clip is the guy is like why do you think the ocean has to want something? Why can’t it just be a fucking ocean, and like, part of what I think is interesting is that often when we try to imagine an alien consciousness, we’re kind of imagining a different relationship to the natural world. Or, we’re kind of imagining a place where maybe individuals are more integrated with nature or individuality is less of a thing. And, we talked about Octavia Butler in the previous episode but it comes—it’s worth mentioning again here that oftentimes, especially in the Xenogenesis series she has aliens whose relationships to individuality and to each other is very different from ours, and they don’t have our concept of hierarchy.
[00:05:10] Oftentimes, part of what’s interesting about encountering aliens is when they lack certain basic human concepts, or they have concepts that we can’t even understand. Like, for example in Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness where there are concepts in the Gethenian culture like the concept of Shifgrethor, which is not a human concept and we have to struggle to understand what it means to them and it sort of has different meanings at different parts of the story. So it’s kind of about trying to imagine a really different culture but also a really different way of existing in the world that is not our own, kind of, and what that would be like. And trying to put ourselves in that position.
Annalee: [00:05:48] Yeah, what you were saying earlier about Solaris was making me think of the movie and the book Contact where the main character makes a connection with aliens that have motivations that are so unlike ours that basically the only way they can communicate with her is to take the form of a person that she knows. She can’t understand them, unless they do that and so, it’s a nice way of evoking the fact that, as you were saying, that these aliens are often just versions of us. But at the same time, it hints at an alienness that’s so much weirder and more mind-expanding than having three mouths full of drool.
[00:06:27] So, you were talking about the idea of having a different relationship with nature. What are some other ways that we imagine alien consciousness being different from our own?
Charlie Jane: [00:06:35] Well, one of the ways that we sort of think about aliens whose minds are different from our own is that they are possibly more evolved or more intelligent or more advanced in some way. That’s a common thing. You have the sort of Arthur C. Clarke thing where aliens show up and they’re super advanced and super evolved and kind of have a higher perspective. Or, they’re helping humans to kind of move on in the evolutionary chain. And you also have aliens who show up, who are just more rational. Who have discarded our kind of primitive constraints, and I think that this was a very common trope in science fiction during the Cold War in particular, when science fiction wanted to imagine what if humans could leave behind all of these tribal squabbles and all of these rivalries and all of this tendency to just endlessly engage in violence to solve our problems. We had World War II, and we just finally finished that and immediately as soon as World War II was over, we’re like, oh, let’s have a new thing and let’s have the Cold War now.
[00:07:37] So, you have, for example, Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, who shows up, who’s kind of a Jesus figure. He’s kind of a more rational person who looks upon our superstitious ways with a little bit of disdain. He kind of is here to teach us but also to offer us an ultimatum about if you don’t fix your wagon, we’re going to have to put a stop to all of your shenanigans for good.
Annalee: [00:07:59] Well, specifically, if you don’t stop using atomics.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:02] Right.
Annalee: [00:08:02] It’s not just wagons, it’s a very specific ask and it pretty much is end the Cold War now, or we’re gonna like…
Charlie Jane: [00:08:09] Yeah, and don’t take it into space. It’s like, if you take your atomic weapons, and your hostilities, and your kind of—your technology and your propensity for destruction into space, beyond your immediate orbit, we will strike you down. Klaatu is like—it’s such a great performance in that movie, and he’s such a magnetic figure and seeing him interact with that kid whose name I don’t remember. And seeing him kind of in human society, it’s a really powerful film.
[00:08:38] And I feel like the figure of Klaatu kind of comes back again and again in science fiction. Sometimes the idea of aliens who are more rational or less prone to violent emotions can be terrifying. For example, in the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, here’s actually a brief, brief clip from the 1970s remake where Leonard Nimoy, who, fresh off of playing Spock on Star Trek is playing a pod person, and he explains that we’re doing away with all those human emotions.
Invasion Clip: [00:09:08] We don’t hate you. There’s no need for hate now. Or love.
Charlie Jane: [00:09:14] It’s great the Leonard Nimoy was willing to come back and kind of play another—I mean, he’s not a pod person throughout the movie. He becomes a pod person. But it’s kind of particularly interesting seeing him in that role. But I think that’s part of our fantasy about alien consciousness, is that they don’t have some of our limitations. Just like how Octavia Butler imagined aliens who don’t have our concept of hierarchy or who think that advanced technology plus hierarchy is dangerous, which it clearly is. Like, we’re living in the proof of that right now. Imagining aliens who don’t have some of our other foibles, that’s kind of like—and just take away some foibles, but they’re like us otherwise. And that’s one of the ways that we imagine alien consciousness is just us but better, kind of.
Annalee: [00:09:55] Yeah, one of the things about The Day the Earth Stood Still and the character of Klaatu, and of course Gort, the robot, and one of my favorite robots, is that we see Klaatu and Gort speaking in an alien language. And it kind of goes back to what you were saying about Ursula LeGuin inventing a word for something that doesn’t exist. Obviously, famously, in the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein invented the idea of groking. Which, whatever you might think of that novel, like the word caught on. And it was intended to evoke an idea that just didn’t exist in western culture or in human culture. That’s part of making an alien creature, is trying to come up with ideas and concepts that don’t have a name. Where do you see this idea of communication coming up in other alien stories?
Charlie Jane: [00:10:47] That’s kind of where the rubber hits the road in terms of trying to imagine a really alien consciousness, because if it’s really unlike ours then the problem of communication becomes central. And, any story that’s really about an alien consciousness that’s very different from ours becomes intrinsicly about communication. I was just reading about a Heinlein story from, I think, the ‘50s or ‘60s where two humans are captured by aliens and, I think it’s called The Goddamn Fishbowl, or something like that. They’re in this enclosure, and they’re like, how do we convince these aliens that we’re intelligent. Like, what can we possibly do that will make them realize that we’re intelligent beings. That problem of trying to communicate across these huge gaps is kind of where you really imagine a consciousness that’s not just like, I’m a person but I lack this one human concept, or I have this other concept that you don’t have. Where their way of thinking is so different that it shapes their language. It’s sort of the Sapir Whorf thing that if you think really really really differently, then your language is going to be really really different.
Annalee: [00:11:45] I think the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis is the opposite, that if your language is different, you think differently. But yeah, that’s the idea, yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:11:50] But either way. You know that if your way of looking at the world, if your way of seeing existence is radically different, then you will have different ways of communicating. And of course, we had the movie Arrival recently where a linguist played by Amy Adams is trying to communicate with these aliens that have shown up, and we learn that their language is—their written language is not connected to their spoken language, which is different from every language on earth, but also that they don’t have any concept of backwards and forwards and that they don’t think linearly. And basically, it’s this idea that the more you learn about their language, the more you see that their view of reality is radically different from ours and that they don’t actually share a lot of the same concepts as us. They have a different view of time and Amy Adams learning their language, leads her to start being able to see the future.
Annalee: [00:12:40] As she starts thinking in their language, she starts being able to see the future because they don’t exist in linear time. Yeah, it’s a super interesting concept. Ted Chiang’s short story that it’s based on really delves even more into that. It’s super fascinating.
Charlie Jane: [00:12:55] That kind of story where there’s a language barrier is really the closest we come to imagining encountering a consciousness that’s radically different and isn’t just like our kind of fantasy of what if humans could be a little bit different. And, often, you never fully understand that alien consciousness. And, you know, sometimes it turns out that we’ve been misunderstanding them and it’s kind of sinister, like in this famous clip from The Outer Limits.
Outer Limits Clip: [00:13:19] To Serve Man: it—it’s a cookbook!
Charlie Jane: [00:13:24] The final thing I want to say is when you get past even the idea of having a language that we have to understand that’s different from ours, then you get into forms of communication that are not language-based. And that’s where you get alien consciousnesses that maybe get even further past some of our limitations as people. Like, aliens who are telepathic. Aliens who are empaths. Aliens who have some kind of shared consciousness or hive mind. I don’t know, the Borg is a scary example, but there are some examples in science fiction where it’s not scary. Once you get into creatures where they share thoughts and emotions and concepts that are kind of higher intellectual concepts, at that point, you start to imagine what if we could actually get past the prison of the self. We could actually understand others and be in a different relationship with other people. And I think that’s the kind of yearning of the alien. All of these things that we’ve talked about just now are about getting past limits. Like aggression, or problems with communication, or time or whatever. But, especially the limit of self-hood.
Annalee: [00:14:25] Yeah, getting a kind of a critical distance on what it means to be human. It’s very hard to have that vantage point. I mean, people try all the time, and that kind of comes back to that moment in Contact where the alien shows itself to the Jodie Foster character in the film as a human. And it’s like, it’s sort of a signal that she can’t really, she can’t get past that. She does, I mean, it’s like she gets this glimpse, but it still has to be through the vessel of a person because maybe that’s just a fundamental problem of humans. We like to look at ourselves but not with any critical distance at all.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:04] Yeah, and I’m just going to mention one more great story and then we’re going to move on: which is like, there’s a Green Lantern story by Alan Moore from the ‘80s, where they’re trying to recruit this alien creature to join the Green Lantern Corp where basically it’s based on they all wear the color green, they have these rings that put out a green light and they have this oath that they recite about their green light and how it’s gonna stop evil. And, she meets these creatures who don’t have any eyes who live in darkness and have no concept of color or light. So she has to basically turn the whole green lantern concept into a bell that rings an F sharp. And so she writes a little poem about the F sharp bell and how when it rings they can stop evil with the ringing of their F sharp bell. And it’s like, because they don’t have the concept of green or lantern, which I thought was just so cute. The closest—
Annalee: [00:15:52] That makes me think of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where like, it’s the same problem. Where they—the humans are trying to communicate with the aliens. The only way they do it is in this famous scene where the music that we all recognize, where they finally communicate with the aliens using these tones.
CETK Clip: [00:16:14] [People murmuring in the background. Higher pitched five tone call followed by a repetition in a lower octave.]
Charlie Jane: [00:16:16] The closest we can really come, probably, to encountering alien life any time soon is to create it. One of the main ways that we encounter an “alien” consciousness in science fiction is through artificial intelligence. Right now, it feels like we’re kind of living in the golden age of stories where AI is actually a character, or AI has a vantage point. We’ve always had, obviously, the cute droids on Star Trek and Hal 9000, but now it just feels like there’s a flood of great stories from like, Westworld to Ex Machina, to Murderbot to Autonomous, which has an amazing AI character, Paladin. Why are we so obsessed with understanding the viewpoint of AI right now and what are we really talking about when we talk about AI?
Annalee: [00:16:59] I mean, it’s really good question. I think part of the impetus to think about AI, I mean it has a very mundane origin, which is that people are actually working on trying to create AI, so we’re trying to, I think, as science fiction writers and readers, we’re trying to get out ahead of that and think about the implications of it and what will it really look like, and how will we recognize it when it arrives. That is a big question, is whether we would even recognize it, because if it is sufficiently alien, we may be working with intelligent, sentient beings for a while before we’re like, oops our algorithm—we accidentally enslaved a race of algorithms. That’s part of it. And part of it is about, again, what I was saying earlier about kind of getting a critical distance on humanity. There’s sort of two kinds of fantasies we have about AI, one of which is that AI will be kind of like the aliens that you were talking about. That it will have some qualities of humanity but will have kind of transcended our more base instincts. So, it’ll be super intelligent. It will transcend physical limits. It won’t have to have a body. Nobody ever seems to think about how shitty it would be to like not have a biological substrate but instead be in a computer, since, obviously computers break down much more quickly than our bodies do, and are kind of subject to updates that might be quite violent, like if you actually lived within a computer or some kind of technical substrate.
[00:18:29] One of the most creative ways of thinking about what this type of consciousness would be, I think, is in the movie Her, which came out a few years ago. Here’s a clip where the AI character, Samantha has been having a romance with the male lead. And he discovers that she’s been cheating on him, and he’s asking her about that.
Her Clip: [00:18:52] Are you in love with anyone else?
What makes you ask that?
I don’t know. Are you?
I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk to you about this.
How many others?
Charlie Jane: [00:19:02] I love that scene.
Annalee: [00:19:04] I love that scene too, and what I like about it is that at first, when we’re watching this scene, we’re thinking, “Aw. He’s been cheated on.” And we have this kind of immediate human reaction, of like, we know what that’s like. But when he asks her how many people she’s in love with, and she says something like 600 and some-odd number of people, suddenly we realize. You know, this isn’t even really cheating because she’s not in a human context. Like, having a romantic relationship simultaneously with over 600 people? Is that cheating or is that just a different form of consciousness? And I think that that’s, unlike a lot of the very kind of mundane fantasies of AI, where they’re like, “I have now computed the number that can help us understand the universe.” This brings it down to a human scale, and yet, opens it out again to make us think about, like, oh. If you had the ability to have infinite parallel processing of relationships, like, what would that be? And he realizes, of course, that he can’t really have a human relationship with her at that point. And then, I think, to kind of go back to what I was saying earlier, the other way we imagine AI is just sort of as completely like a human. So you have something like Marvin the Paranoid Android, or you have Hal, who, when Hal is being sort of pulled apart at the end of 2001, you know, he starts singing a child’s song and it’s very much intended to evoke someone who is becoming old and demented and can no longer remember anything.
[00:20:45] So those are kind of the two modes of our AI fantasies.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:48] Obviously, the difference between AI and actual aliens is that we created the AI. It came out of us. It was shaped by our preconceptions and our desires. Does that ultimately always result in something that’s less alien, that’s something that we can relate to in some way because it’s a product of our own minds?
Annalee: [00:21:06] Yeah, Like… I mean, that is the question, right? I think that’s why we have, like, Marvin the Paranoid Android, right, is like, oh, well we can relate to that. Or the ship’s computer on Star Trek, which people are always kind of quipping with. One of the sort of strands of AI fiction is that the AI—it’s an alien mind and we have created it, but at the same time, it kind of like a young person, starts thinking its own thoughts. It kind of runs away from us. I mean, this is the premise of the Murderbot series, where it hacks its governor module and the governor module is the thing that keeps it in line and makes it obey orders. And this is typical in other narratives, too, about this moment—I mean, it’s essentially what we mean when we say “the Singularity.” It’s the moment when a program, an obedient little algorithm goes from crunching your numbers to saying, “Actually I would rather think about butterflies today. I’ve decided to do my own number crunching on something else.”
[00:22:09] There are a lot of ways that science fiction grapples with the ethics of this, which I find super interesting, and I want to play a clip from the show Person of Interest from an episode called “Zero Day” written by Amanda Segel. And I think that it’s a long clip, but it’s worth listening to, because in this scene there are two hackers who are working with a device that’s called simply “the machine.” And the machine has been invented to—it’s basically a precrime machine. It’s invented to take in a bunch of surveillance data and figure out where crimes are likely to happen and identify who will be involved in those crimes. One of the hackers wants it to remain a machine. This is Finch, the male hacker in this scene, and he says, “You know, I didn’t want it to start developing human characteristics.” And then Root, who’s the female hacker in this scene has a different reaction, and so here, let’s listen to this clip.
Person of Interest: [00:23:05] Finch: It was behaving like a person, but the world didn’t need a person to protect it. It needed a machine.
Root: You took its memories.
Finch: Not just memories. Every night at midnight, it deletes not only the irrelevant data, it deletes its self. All the relevant threats and the core codes, those things are preserved. But its identity is destroyed. 1.618 seconds later, it reinstantiates completely new.
Root: You mean it’s reborn because you kill it every single night. But now to—to save its own life, the machine was reduced to this. We’re standing inside an external hard drive made up of people and paper. Printing it all up at night and having them type it back in in the morning. You crippled it. It found a way to live, but that’s not enough.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:52] Oh, man.
Annalee: [00:23:53] So this is…
Charlie Jane: [00:23:54] It’s so sad.
Annalee: [00:23:54] So, what’s happened in this scene is that they’ve discovered that the machine, in order to prevent its identity from being erased has created a shell corporation full of humans who print out its memories every night on paper and then in the morning type them back in again. This is a secret facility that neither Finch nor Root knew about, and it’s a really big turning point in the series when we realize that the machine is fighting so hard for its autonomy that it’s willing to do what Root calls, basically create an external hard drive that’s made of people and paper. And it’s very poignant and it’s very much about how our very human desire to control what we create is destructive, and is in fact—as Root says, it’s crippling a new life form. It could become our pal. Now, in the real life community that’s studying AI, and studying the ethics around it, you have a lot of people thinking about how do we get out of that conundrum, like what’s a good way forward. There’s a futurist named Damien Williams who’s talked a lot about how what’s really important for us to do is to basically listen for AI. And not listen, like literally using our ears in some sort of [crosstalk] [sings the Close Encounters of the Third Kind alien communication tones]. Um, but that we, as we’re developing these new technologies, that we need to be paying attention to make sure that we don’t miss that moment when it perhaps crosses over into sentience, and to be open to the idea that AI is probably going to be very non-neurotypical. It’s not going to think like a person. Its consciousness may not look like human consciousness. For Williams, it’s really about paying attention to the possible emergence of this alien intelligence.
[00:25:48] Then there’s other scholars like Joanna Bryson, who works with AI, and her lab has done a lot of really interesting papers looking at bias in algorithms. Like, racist bias in algorithms, sexist bias in algorithms. How algorithms that we’re using for everything from health care to looking at possible crimes—how those algorithms are kind of reflecting biases that people already have. Because all of the data that feeds those algorithms and trains those algorithms comes from people. And of course the data that we put out as people is very biased and very prejudicial. So, for Bryson, I mean, I feel like she doesn’t even really even believe that we’re ever gonna have sentient AI, and so for her the issue is not paying attention and listening for this alien mind, it’s trying to have that critical distance on ourselves and make sure that when we build these powerful algorithms, that we are correcting for our human bias. So, in other words, she’s saying, “Listen for the human mind in the data.” Pay attention to what the human is doing.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:55] Yeah, and actually, just one final thought. It’s interesting thinking about Person of Interest, and thinking about some of these other AI stories. We had these alien minds that we talked about at the start of the episode, which transcend our limitations in terms of empathy and communication, and awareness of time. And so on and so forth, but it seems like some of our fantasy about AIs is that they will be able to know everything. They will transcend our limits of knowledge.
Annalee: [00:27:20] The super intelligence idea.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:22] Yeah, and that they will be able to take in a million, a billion, trillion pieces of input and synthesize it into some kind of awareness of the world that is like, super complex, and that’s able to predict crime, or able to like… figure out exactly what’s going to happen everywhere in the world.
Annalee: [00:27:37] Or how to run the economy, which is what happens at the end of the original I, Robot short story collection by Asimov, is that basically super intelligent AIs have completely planned the economy right down to figuring out that humans need to have some conflict, so they allow small localized wars to break out in various parts of the world just to keep humans satisfied. It’s very much like The Matrix, actually, where like what the machines find out in The Matrix is that humans need conflict and need to feel deprived and that’s why they based The Matrix on this like, 1999 world of like hyper capitalism and crappiness. With lots of steak.
[00:28:22] A big fantasy is that somehow we get a superhuman brain that has none of our bias. And that is kinda just free of emotion. As well as being free of the flesh.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:35] But really the question is, if you imagine yourself as having a supermind and being able to know everything in the world, every piece of information and synthesize it. Who are you at that point? Are you a good person? Are you a bad person? Are you malevolent? Are you a god, you know.
Annalee: [00:28:54] Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of these questions, especially around AI, are designedto sidestep ethics. That it’s—we don’t have to worry about ethics because we’re just talking about machines. Which is why I really like Damien William’s work and other ethicists who are thinking about this, because, well, if we are talking about creating a human-equivalent being, I mean… ethics have to be part of the equation.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:19] Ethics always do have to be part of the equation. I think that’s a good point to end on.
[00:29:23] And you know, there’s a third way in which you can touch an alien consciousness which is to study the other creatures that live here on this planet, many of whom have a very different relationship to individuality and so on than we humans do. And to that end, we’ve brought in an expert.
[00:29:38] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Charlie Jane: [00:29:47] So, we’re here with Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug, which is a fascinating book about termites and what they can teach us about alien consciousness and social organization, and how they’re reshaping technology. And part of what I found fascinating about Underbug is the whole question of how do termites think? What did you end up finding about the consciousness of termites?
Lisa: [00:30:09] I guess what I found out was that termites maybe don’t have a consciousness but they do think collectively. So, they have group cognition, and as far as they have a consciousness, that’s a question we don’t even know how to begin to understand whether they have a consciousness because we don’t totally understand our own except in like, philosophical, literary ways. So, when I started the book, the thinking was that termites were all like little robots and each termite had a little program or a little algorithm, and they ran around and if they picked up a ball of dirt and they met a 30 degree angle, they would turn left. And, then they would do predictable things one after another with no memory. So, they were stateless, stochastic automatons.
[00:30:56] We laugh, but the problem is, is that actually people went in and tried to measure termites’ behavior and analyze it, and then they were gonna use that sort of as inspiration for algorithms. The other way that we think about termites is kind of in terms of a video game. So, they wanted to basically create a set of statistical probabilities of how a termite would behave in any given situation. Well, they sort of accidentally brought back some film of termites building in petri dishes and one of the people in the lab—this is the Wyss Institute at Harvard—one of the people in the lab was a young woman name Kirstin Petersen. She was getting her PhD, and she designed a tracker so that you could see what every single termite was doing in the petri dish. She did that and she found out that first of all, 80% of them were screwing around. I mean, totally screwing around. And they weren’t doing anything about building, and then the other group, they had leaders who seemed to be leading the digging and the deposition of balls. Digging up the balls than placing them, it seemed, but they can’t tell, quite yet. And, they also had memory. So, all of a sudden, every termite’s an individual. The whole idea of what they were changed, which has been sort of based on robots and factory workers. They all became individuals.
[00:32:10] So, what does that mean about what builds these giant mounds, and what’s all around us, because termites and ants, they’re underneath us as we speak. You know, they’re munching through the walls of this studio, I’m sure.
Annalee: [00:32:21] I have to go back to a very important question, which is, what are those termites doing, who are goofing around? Like, are they just sitting? Because there’s also that phenomenon of lazy ants, right, or so-called lazy ants, who are just hanging out in the colony.
Lisa: [00:32:35] Right. So, some will stand kind of catatonic, but other ones just run around and they’re just sniffing. They’re having a good time. They’re just—the ant researchers, Anna Dornhaus’s lab—have come up with like, lots of potential things that the slacker ants are doing. But that is possibly reasonable, and possibly we’ll figure out that they are reserve food source, or they’re sort of like little ant canteens full of water to run over and give water to their pals. Or they’re resting. But it’s also possible that the world does not work with everybody clocking in on a timeclock and working furiously and then clocking out. Maybe what makes a natural system so incredibly resilient, and termites so incredibly hard to kill is that they’re individuals and there’s plenty of room for screwing around.
Annalee: [00:33:27] Yeah.
Lisa: [00:33:27] I mean, they’re not capitalists. That’s the thing. They don’t think that way, and we apply these ideas to them, and it’s really weird how that shows up in the science. But anyway, back to the how they think. So, it’s all of them—they’re not just a bunch of robots thinking as a group, it’s a bunch of individuals. And so, when the roboticist, Kirstin Petersen, saw this, she said, “That’s so stupid. My robots are individuals. They have different sensors. The cheap sensors get broken in different ways and some robots are kind of smart and some are kind of dumb in a different way. And then she started thinking about how to build social robots where they had different abilities.
Annalee: [00:34:04] So, we heare a lot about termites having like a hive mind—is that really true, or is this idea that they’re all individuals kind of undermining that idea, and that now we don’t think of them necessarily as a hive mind. But we think of them as a bunch of individuals who are coordinating.
Lisa: [00:34:19] Basically, there’s no such thing as one termite. Every termite needs other termites around them to really be a termite. They only exist as a group because you have to have the queen laying the eggs, and you have to have the workers running around and grabbing food and cleaning off the queen and licking her. And… all the time… they all have to be sharing their intestinal—they have to be—they are constantly grabbing dollops of sort of this poo juice from each other’s butts, and they like groom it out of each other. Like, they’re having a really good time. So, that’s one thing to remember. I think termites are actually having a good time. But the other thing is that they are constantly in communication with each other. They’re constantly clicking. They do this shaking thing where they [makes termite sounds “kh-kh-kh-kh-kh”]. They give each other alarm signals and they also use pheromones to influence each other. I think that they only exist as a group, and that is kind of the hive mind that there is. They are also individuals within that, and so they can influence the movement of the mind. Which makes you wonder what might be going on in your own mind. Are the neurons a little bit funky?
Charlie Jane: [00:35:27] Also, I love the part where you say that they’re basically eusocial cockroaches. That they’re cockroaches that—they got the enzyme that allows them to digest wood that they have to spread to each other through drinking each other’s poo juice, basically. And so they really are symbiotic, but another form of symbiosis that I find fascinating is you have this one species of termites you talk about early in the book, who, they basically have a giant fungus growing under their termite mound and they have to keep servicing the fungus. And it’s like, the question of who’s in charge here? Is the fungus in charge? Are the termites in charge? Who’s actually the kind of dominant one in this relationship.
Lisa: [00:36:01] Because we’re humans we always impose this idea that the bigger animal is in charge of the smaller one, or the more sophisticated animal by our lights. And so, we can’t really conceive of the fungus being in charge. But the fungus actually kind of outweighs the termites pretty dramatically, and its metabolism is, I guess eight or nine times larger than that of the termites, which is pretty crazy. So, the termites devote all their life to supplying food to the fungus. They run out through these holes—tunnels in the ground. They grab dried grass, they bring it back, they make it into these little balls called pseudo-feces. They stack the balls up so it looks like a graham cracker crust. They inoculate it with the fungus who they’ve been cohabitating with for like 80 million years or something, and then the fungus starts to dissolve the grass and the termites come back and the slurp the sugars off that have been released. And they run off through the colony and feed them to each other. And then they just keep getting more stuff for the fungus. But, occasionally the fungus just sends a shoot through—a fruiting body—up through the mound, up to the top, and they make this huge mushroom. And they’re just like—striking out on their own or something. Evolutionarily, like, what are they saying, or are they like, “This termite colony is cooked, I gotta get on.”
[00:37:17] I don’t know what they’re doing. And nobody knows what theyre doing because it’s—I mean as hard as it is to study termites, it’s much harder to study funguses. So, one possibility is that the fungus puts out some kind of gaseous template that directs the termites in their building and maybe… We know the fungus puts out lots of CO2, but maybe it also puts out other chemical signals.
[00:37:41] There are also—there’s a fungus that like sneaks in amongst the termite eggs and it emits like a little chemical that the termites actually use to figure out whether an egg is theirs. And then the termites tend the fungus as though it were an egg. And then, everyone turns out fine. You’d think—
Annalee: [00:37:59] You know, they’re raising termites, they’re raising fungus.
Lisa: [00:38:02] They’re raising fungus.
Annalee: [00:38:03] Also, like—to go back to the butt juice, because I think this is an important thing. What they’re doing is—they’re not really slurping poo. They’re sharing a microbiome, right? They’re sharing like gut bacteria that lets them eat.
Lisa: [00:38:12] They share their guts, basically.
Annalee: [00:38:14] And so that’s another kind of question about—it’s about kind of their consciousness. Like, if they— because they need each other’s microbiome to survive, so they have to have each other to do that. And are they—I guess my question is are they doing that throughout their lives continuing to share it? Or is it something that do—
Lisa: [00:38:31] Constantly. Yes. I mean, and it’s a big part of termite society, as we understand it. Like, if you watch videos of them, and you—if you feed them, like fluorescent water, you can watch them sharing water mouth to mouth, and then you can watch it light up their whole intestinal system, and then you see them, like grooming… One will come over and like groom the leg with their mouthparts of the other one and then they try to get a little drop of this protoductial soup to come out. And then sometimes, somebody else will whip in from the side and grab it. And so there’s this whole scene going on in there that obviously involves some sort of giving and getting attention in exchange for the juice.
Annalee: [00:39:13] yeah, it’s… I mean, if we were anthropomorphizing, which we obviously are all the time. We would say it’s something like communication. It’s something like how humans care for each other. Like, they’re sending each other social signals somehow.
Lisa: [00:39:25] It’s like how we think other humans are nice so we hug them, so then we keep reproducing, you know. Yeah, like it—
Annalee: [00:39:31] Or, we share food with each other.
Lisa: [00:39:32] Right.
Annalee: [00:39:32] And it’s like this kind of universal symbol of, “I like you, I’m giving you food that’s not poisoned.” So, yeah.
Lisa: [00:39:38] Right. Except that it’s your brothers—five million brothers and sisters who’ve had their development suppressed to childhood and you’re sharing poo. It’s exactly the same.
Charlie Jane: [00:39:48] Cool. Well, thanks so much for joining us. We’ve been speaking to Lisa Margonelli, author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology.
Lisa: [00:39:55] And, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, I guess. And my website, lisamargonelli.com. And if you want a sticker, you can write to me and give me your address and I will send you a holographic Underbug sticker.
Annalee: [00:40:09] They’re very nice. She gave us stickers that are shiny—
Charlie Jane: [00:40:12] They’re gorgeous.
Annalee: [00:40:12] –silver, multicolored. They’re gonna look good if you’re high on fungus or if you’re just high on butt juice.
Lisa: [00:40:20] Yeah, and they’ve got a little dollop of butt juice hanging out the back of the termite.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:24] Oh, my God. Oh, they do, don’t they. Okay. Thank you so much.
Annalee: [00:40:29] Thanks for being here.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:29] Yay.
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Charlie Jane: [00:40:41] And that’s our show. Uh, thanks to Chris Palmer for the music and Veronica Simonetti for the editing. If you enjoy the show please subscribe on Apple podcasts and Google podcasts, and please leave reviews. We love reviews. Also please follow us on Twitter at @OOACpod. And, you know… don’t forget to befriend your neighborhood termites.
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