Q&A with M.G. Wheaton // Emily Eternal Blogtour

Emily Eternal by M. G. Wheaton hardback jacket.jpg

I had a chance to receive an early review copy for Emily Eternal and I reviewed it here. The story follows Emily, who is an Artificial Consciousness (not an AI, Artificial Intelligence) who is now tasked with saving humanity from extinction.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but I had so many questions left, and thankfully I had a chance to interview M.G. Wheatong and throw some of those questions his way.

Q: Hi, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about Emily Eternal?

Howdy. I’m M.G. Wheaton and “Emily Eternal” is about an Artificial Consciousness who really, really likes the human species and goes to extraordinary lengths to try and save it when the Earth is threatened with mass extinction.

Q: There is a lot of “science” in Emily Eternal, how did you come up with the idea of Emily as an Artificial Consciousness?

The first time I encountered Artificial Intelligence being used to condition humans was when I was working on a video game years ago. The game was a “Friday the 13th”-esque horror game in which you played a machete-wielding killer. The AI came into play as, early on in the game, your first-person killer could just wipe out a bunch of camp counselors or something but the other in-game victims soon learned to stay away from you and became nearly impossible to kill. So, the player was conditioned to create elaborate traps and stunts to “scare” the victims into making mistakes. They’d trip. They’d fall. They’d run to what they thought was an exit but it would lead them straight to you. By learning to instill fear, it conditioned the player to become stealthier, more sadistic, and ultimately a more successful mass murderer.

Needless to say, the game in its pre-publication infancy proved too controversial at the time and morphed into the much more marketplace-friendly “Naughty Bear” in which a vengeful teddy bear stalks and slashes other teddies, but the fear-based engine remained intact.

What stayed with me after the experience was how the game conditioned the player. If in the military, a lot of the training in the past has been about dehumanizing the enemy in order to make it easier for a human to kill another human, the use of AI could streamline, even personalize that process. But if this was true, I wondered if the opposite could be true as well.

To that, if the goal of modern psychiatry is to make a person their own psychiatrist, I imagined a conditioning interface that could also do that. An Artificial Intelligence would, ultimately, be limited. But an evolving Artificial Consciousness, something programmed to become more and more empathetic the more it learned, I thought would work. Even better, would be if it was able to use the mind of each patient to create an individualized and comprehensive UX to best help lead them to solutions most suited to how their brain already worked. This way, it could not only dodge the biases of AI but also of modern psychiatry.

Something like Emily could result.

Q: Have you ever read or seen Paprika? Emily has similarities with her, and I wondered if there was a connection somehow. (For those that haven’t seen it or read it, you can find it in IMDB and in Goodreads)

I have done neither but just watched a trailer and it looks like something I’d love.

Q: DNA plays an important part in the story, how did you come up with the specific DNA changes that are important to the plot (trying not to give spoilers away)?

All that started for me when my daughter and I were watching a documentary that included a segment on the Sama-Bajau people, a culture of sea nomads near the Philippines and Borneo. They spend much of their lives either on boats or in the water, some submerged four or five hours a day while fishing. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes as the camera followed a man walking without aid of a suit or weights on the sea floor. It was a sight that, to me, violated what I thought I knew of the laws of physics and biology. How could he hold his breath that long? How could he achieve such an easy negative buoyancy?

The doc went on to speak about the peoples’ landsickness, an equivalent to seasickness that affected their sense of balance when they went on dry land. I did some research, discovering that indeed they’d become genetically adapted over time to living at sea. Their spleens were larger. They’d adapted genetic responses to prevent hypoxia and ways to disperse the buildup of carbon dioxide.

This adaptation occurred over several generations, obviously, but it made me think that if a human body can be made to adapt to a different environment in all these ways, what changes could it make in order to adapt to life in a vacuum? Life in low gravity? Life with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere, etc.? And how freeing might that be for us as a species if instead of adapting over several generations, we were able to do it in one?

As I was thinking about this, Yuval Harari’s writings on transhumanism began to filter out suggesting that in the future, humans will or, at least, should merge with technology in order to keep up with the evolving abilities of machines. Though ideas about biotech enhancements and the like have been around for a while, he was the first person I read who talked about this in holistic ways, ultimately creating a new species, a posthuman, not just an elevated Homo sapiens.

Add to that what we’ve learned in recent years about gene editing—literally using enzymes (CRISPR associated proteins) to remove and replace strands of DNA in a living human—and I imagined how a computer would be able to use gene editing tech in a way that produced adaptations within a living person in response to, not conditioning, but environmental stimuli, a’la a squid or octopus using its chromatophores to change color or altering their papillae to manipulate the texture of their skin.

As for replication, it was this story in the May, 2016 issue of Discover Magazine about the now-famous experiment at the French National Center for Scientific Research in which memories were implanted in mice—meaning, they now had memories of an experience (or in this case, conditioning) without having actually lived that experience—that really set my mind spinning. If memory was physical, then it could be replicated. Extrapolating that, so then could be experience. And once you can do that, the idea of cloning moves away from traits to genetically replicating a person’s life in a much more real way.

Putting this all together, the kind of evolution that has occurred through generations of adaptation in the Sama-Bajau people, using gene editing tech, could theoretically be transplanted into the genetic code of another living person. Also, the memories and conditioning that show how best use it.

Q: Who did you base the Argosy (an interesting group of people in the book) on, why? 

Argosy has shades of the private military company best exemplified by Blackwater but also the Bechtel Corporation, the private construction firm that built the Hoover Dam but now controls 80% of the U.S.’s nuclear power plants. Those two firms have done so much to privatize what had once been under strict(er) government control, using taxpayer dollars to make life or death decisions for the masses, but generally without their knowledge.

The “why” is that I’d been hearing more and more about the sociology of science, researchers going in to study how a scientist’s personal biases affect the science the general population hears about as well as what is used by politicians to make budgetary decisions. The more I learned, the more I saw examples of how science can not only be manipulated to a variety of ends but also how a herd mentality can suppress science that disproves what other scientists want an outcome to be.

Even over this past winter, a friend was explaining to me (over some great Trinidadian cuisine in Crown Heights) how in the mid-twentieth century, scientists who poked holes in Einstein’s work were bullied or shunted to the side due to Einstein’s cult of personality. This particular physicist’s mentor actually revived the work of one of these scientists in the 1970s and proved that, yes, they were right and Einstein wrong.

That’s a long way to get to when science and government team up with near-unlimited resources, as in the case of Argosy, you can end up with someone in orbit or the creation of the atomic bomb.

Q: Who is the physical inspiration behind Emily, her appearance and personality?

Dr. Wyman, Emily’s creator, wants Emily to be the most empathetic interface for, well, himself. He’s someone who is used to people the age of his grad students being deferential to him. He’s not looking for an equal partner; he’s looking for someone who will help. To him, it’s someone who looks like and self-perceives as Emily does. Again, it speaks to the biases of those who programmed her, something she struggles with as she self-actualizes.

Q: In the end, the book is an ode to humanity (or at least that is how I read it), so to finish this Q&A, why not tell us something about humanity that inspires you or that you’d like to leave for the future?

When I was a teenager, I saw a page from surrealist Max Ernst’s sketchbook in a museum that was not like anything I’d seen before. Unlike the very polished paintings of his and Rene Magritte’s that surrounded it, I could easily see each pencil stroke in the work. And hey, I’d used a pencil, but I could never make it do the incredible things he’d done. It made me want to decipher his intent beyond just the craft that could be learned, but also find a connection to the human at the other end. I’ve always had a hard time connecting with people one on one in real life. I avoid parties, and, well, almost all social interactions. Maybe because of that, I believe the many artists, performers, actors, etc. who say they feel most themselves when they’re at work—sketching, painting, dancing. I think that’s one of the reasons I spend so much of my time tracking down art here in L.A. and elsewhere, going to plays and concerts, seeking out food designed by specific chefs, and so on. I like connecting to other people through what they choose to author, where their passions are most raw, open, and honest. And it’s everywhere-everywhere-everywhere.

That’s  all! Hope you enjoyed learning more about the inspiration behind Emily Eternal.

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