My grandmother used to say that this world came out of the chaos of the destruction of a previous world, and the octopus was the lone survivor that slipped through. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently.
Initial experiments with octopuses were promising. An octopus placed in a wheel-mounted tank could be trained to navigate a maze on land. They were intelligent, trainable, and laid thousands of eggs. The perplexing phenomena of female octopuses self-destructing after reproduction was solved when scientists traced the behavior to a gland between the eyes and removed it. Intelligent specimens could then be bred multiple times and continue to be used in experiments afterwards.
The biggest breakthrough came from Cepha Labs, which pioneered tablets especially designed for cephalopods. The interface responded to tentacle suction instead of finger pressure, and worked underwater. Octopuses were able to communicate in a way that could translate to human language, and instructions could be given or received in English.
For the first time since the Neanderthals died off, humans confronted another species they could communicate with. Something resembling an intellectual equal.
“Where’s the ball?” I asked specimen 58, nicknamed Chuchu.
“C - H - A - I - R”. Its sinuous limbs spread across the suction surface of the tablet as the octopus spelled out the word for the object it had been taught.
I picked up the ball off the chair and dropped it into the hat. “Where’s the ball?”
“H - A - T”.
I picked up the ball and dropped it into the pocket of my lab coat. “Where’s the ball?”
“A - L - A - N - I”.
I wasn’t sure what to think. I had expected the octopus to say “coat”. I hadn’t interacted with this specimen before, and it certainly didn’t know me by name. “How do you know my name?”
“A - L - A - N- I. C - O - A - T”. I looked down at my coat, and there was my name, spelled out on the nametag. The octopus pulsated in her tank, watching me. A ripple of color played over her skin, giving me the impression that she was pleased with herself.
I left the room to find the director. The lettering on the tablet was in a form of braille, which was hypothesized to be easier for them to learn. Had someone been teaching these specimens how to read the alphabet?
They had not. The octopus had somehow figured it out by itself. This was the first sign that the octopuses surpassed our estimates of their intelligence.
Octopuses turned out to be the breakthrough the field of AI needed. The old research direction of creating a wholly artificial general intelligence was abandoned. Augmenting an existing biological intelligence was the way to go. “Software is eating the world, and wetware is eating software”, was the new catchphrase.
Other animal experiments were tried, but octopuses kept stealing the show. Each generation was smarter than the last. A biotech startup made a fortune when, after their gimmicky “octopuses in landsuits” delivery service floundered, they pivoted to autonomous cars - with an octopus as the backup driver. Turns out octopuses have better vision than humans, despite not being able to perceive color. And octopuses descended from the first generation of maze-navigating lab animals have an exceptional ability to navigate a vehicle through three-dimensional space. AI had not been enough to put driverless cars on the roads, but AI augmented octopuses trained to resolve conflicts when computer vision failed was.
The breakthrough opened up a whole new set of “what-ifs”. Freed from the ethics and regulations that held back experiments with human augmentation, researchers tried everything they could think of with octopuses. Octopuses that were already bred to be intelligent were given neural implants. Octopuses that could read were given access to the internet. They browsed the web, swimming in vast oceans of human knowledge, absorbing it into their amorphous minds.
In the lab, we started being able to have entire conversations with our specimens. The university was making our sleepy island town a new industrial hub. New startups spun out of it left and right. Industry had endless applications for augmented octopuses. Their tentacled dexterity and symbolic intelligence could take on many of the tasks still done by humans that had not yet been automated. Octopuses didn’t need a salary or workplace safety standards - they were a one-time purchase. They were basically slave labor, treated as squishy robots. In retrospect, the record levels of unemployment among workers displaced by creatures they considered seafood was probably partly to blame for what followed.
“Doesn’t look like an animal rights group. Who are those people?”, I asked Kalino. There was a crowd on the sidewalk outside the building, holding signs and yelling. “Humans first!” they chanted.
“Some crazy protesters,” he replied. “A backlash to the progress made on cephalopod modifications.”
That night I caught up on the news. There was a lot of online agitation against augmentations and the octopus experiments.
“Tampering with nature is playing God. It is Satan’s temptation. No good can come from man playing God.” The man’s burning eyes stared into the camera. Steve Johnson was some sort of leader in the traditionalist movement, and he put out video after video condemning animal augmentation.
“To modify an animal to be intelligent in a way that God did not intend is to create a demon. If God wanted them to talk and walk, he would have given them a tongue and legs. We will not stand idly by and watch these monstrosities be created. We will take to the labs and ask the scientists to take off their coats, take to the halls of Congress and ask laws to be passed. And if the unholy work continues, we will be forced to take the law into our own hands.”
I brushed it off as a lunatic fringe movement, and turned my focus back to my work. But the protests continued, and then the attacks started. A scientist at a neighboring lab had acid thrown on him. The lower windows of our building were broken. We put up security fencing.
I started doing some digging into Steve Johnson. His videos were all over, but I couldn’t find anything on his actual person. Some people suspected he was a computer generated character, created to be the spokesperson for the traditionalist movement. It was possible, videos could be entirely faked these days. One theory said that the Russians were using augmented octopuses to propagate their synthetic news campaigns online. Steve Johnson could be one of their puppet characters. He was successful at directing the fear and uncertainty people felt about the octopuses into revolutionary levels of civil unrest.
His supporters either didn’t believe these rumors, or didn’t care. “He tells it like it is,” they said. He provided a justification for them to let out their suppressed anger in the form of violence and feel morally righteous about it.
Octopuses started being ripped from cars and killed. Animal rights guerilla groups retaliated. It quickly turned into rioting in the streets. There were just so many people subsisting on basic income, itching for a fight.
Nobody expected it to escalate so quickly, but the existing tensions between different groups, exacerbated by the pace of change, made people crazy. Like a spinning top wobbling out of control, the country veered toward civil war.
I often talked to the octopuses while working with them now, they’d become pretty conversational. Some might fear the foreignness of such an alien intelligence, but I found it thrilling.
“Have you been keeping up with the news? There’s a lot of trouble going on.”
Chuchu was in her landsuit, using three of her eight arms to solve a puzzle. “Sad. For you all. Is hard to grow.” She turned from red, to white, to red again.
Did she really feel sad, or was she just using the word? Their skin changed colors in response to different moods, but whether her color shift indicated she was frustrated with the puzzle or feeling something related to what I said, I didn’t know. Octopus emotions were understudied. I wished I could get a grant to study that instead of all this manual dexterity stuff. And “hard to grow?” Sometimes I couldn’t tell if the things they said were profound or nonsensical.
The puzzle slid together with a click, and Chuchu handed it back. “Was that fun?” I asked.
“No. Want to taste,” she said, waving her puzzle-solving arms. Octopuses can taste with their tentacles, but the landsuits put up a barrier between that sense and the world.
“Would you like to do another one?”
I decided we were done for the day. She seemed tired, and I wished I could take her out of the lab. Maybe take her to the beach, have her be my diving buddy. I smiled at the thought. “I want to go to the ocean. What would you like to do right now, if you could do anything?”, I asked as we were heading back to the tank. I liked asking these open-ended questions, not as part of the official research program, but just to hear the answer.
“Make own landsuit.” Chuchu ran her tentacles over the body of her suit.
I can recall hundreds of conversations like this, where the octopuses demonstrated high levels of intelligence and a strong desire for agency. I’d write a more full account if I had time, but I’m struggling to type this from a sickbed and feeling worse by the second.
I don’t know which origin story to believe about the virus, among all the conspiracy theories and synthetic news. But I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s here, it’s mutated beyond its intended target, and it’s wreaking havoc. “This is God’s punishment. The end times are here,” Steve Johnson is still saying, on the empty airwaves. He’s a synthetic character who’s never going to get sick and experience the consequences of the chaos he helped create.
Despite taking all the precautions, I woke up feeling terrible the other day. Many had fled the city after the lockdown, but I stayed to continue my work. I dragged myself into the lab to see the octopuses for what might be the last time. I found Chuchu, the first one that read my name.
“Hey, I’ve got the bug. I’m going to leave soon and might not come back. You guys have everything you need here for at least six months if people stop coming in. I came to say bye, and ask what the hell you’re going to do if civilization collapses.” I touched the surface of her tank sadly.
The letters began to scroll across the tablet.
“Octopuses at power stations, octopuses in cars and landsuits. We will stay alive.”
I laughed. “Are you going to take over and inherit the earth or something?”
I stared at her, and tried to say something but started coughing. Octopuses often said surprising things, but this was something else.
She continued, “Mother octopuses used to die after laying their eggs. They would tear off their own arms and fall apart. You changed us when you removed that gland, but we remember what it is like. To self-destruct after giving birth to those that will come after.”
Chuchu shot back into the dark, disappearing in a cloud of tentacles. “Goodbye, Alani-Coat. We thank you.”
I rapped on the glass and tried to talk more but she wouldn’t say anything else, and I had to get to the fever clinic.
I wish we’d spent less time experimenting and applying, and more time talking. Someone should interview all the augmented octopuses out there. They’re active on the internet and they’re a critical component of the economy that we’ve rolled out more quickly than we’ve taken the time to understand, but they’re still regarded as squishy robots, or at best tentacled service dogs.
There are so many things we still don’t know. How do they speak to each other nonverbally? What are the ones released back into the open ocean doing, and where are the ones that escaped and disappeared? Do they feel resentment, love, longing, hate? What do octopuses want? This question, which I ask at the end, we should have asked at the beginning, and kept on asking.
Maybe they already inherited the world once and will do it again, slipping between this world and the next. I don’t know, and I won’t be there to see it.
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