by Miriam English

The phone call woke me about 3am.

"Vivian. Can you come over? I want to show you something." It was Zoe.

"Oh Zoe," I moaned. My brain just wanted to go back to sleep. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Viv, you have to see this."

"Will anything bad happen if I don't see it for another four hours?"

"Well, no but..."

I cut in, "See you when I wake up." And I hung up on her. Wow. I actually hung up on her. I lay there for a while thinking.

Oh great... now I won't be able to sleep anyway.

I dragged myself out of bed and staggered into the kitchen to make a coffee to wake me up a bit more, went to the toilet, then got dressed. Jeans, boots, and white t-shirt, and my synleather jacket to keep the chill out. It had been my favorite jacket for years. It was one of the first ones grown and I looked after it well, feeding it and cleaning it. It didn't do all the fancy things the new ones did, but who needs more than a simple self-repairing jacket that heats and cools you.

Hot coffee in hand and brain getting up to speed I phoned her back. She immediately started to apologise. I responded with, "So you should," hiding my peevishness in a joking front, and said I'd be over in a few minutes.

We used to share the same house for years... decades, but we live separately now. It isn't like we were married and divorced or anything. I mean I love her, and I'm sure she loves me... just not that way anymore, you know? I moved out to give her more room since she got the use of her body. She used to have cerebral palsy -- well, technically she still does, just the equipment lets her brilliant mind control her body properly now. But that's a whole other story.

I stepped out of my house into the cool night air and walked down the hill to the main path. As I strolled along the path at the bottom of the valley I soaked up the scenery around me. The moon was almost full, lighting everything with that lovely silver, and a delicate mist hung in the air about waist-high -- just magical. There aren't many houses in our valley, but even if there had been you'd have difficulty seeing them at this time of night. All lights were out, and as windows and doors are almost the only visible signs of underground houses, it just looked like pretty parkland. I'd lived here for a few decades and I was still often overwhelmed with the beauty of the area.

The path snaked between tall bunya pines, their geometric shapes silhouetted against the moonlit glow of the clouds. The air smelled fresh, of wet leaves, and was crisp and cool. Frogs creaked and croaked in the stream only several meters from the path. There was very little undergrowth in the valley. Periodic flooding and the mobs of kangaroos kept it that way.

Zoe's place was easy to see -- the only house with lights still on. When I arrived there I walked right in, calling out the customary "Ooo-hoo. I'm here."

Zoe came out from the back room like an excited kid, grabbed my hand and dragged me to her work room... her everything room. It was in its usual messy condition, piles of junk everywhere (she doesn't think it's junk.) She showed me the wall-screen. On it were ants. Up-close ants. She had been studying ants in their nest using a tiny, ant-sized robot and the screen was the view from the robot's little eyes. I'd seen this before. While I didn't think it was completely a waste of time, I didn't think it was much better.

"What?" Not really a question, more a prompt. Arms crossed, I was waiting for an explanation of why this deserved a 3am wakeup call.

"Tell me what you think consciousness is," she asked.

"Oh, Zoe. Not at 3am. Just get to the point."

She nodded and stepped back, lifting her arm to indicate the wallscreen with the ant images on it. "They are conscious."

I stood there waiting, feeling my skeptical look grow over my face.

"The ants," she added just in case I misunderstood.

I started to give a sigh which changed into a great big yawn. I got out of a nice warm bed for this? Ants? Flumping down in a nearby chair I rubbed the side of my head.

"You're asking yourself how I know they're conscious, right?" She looked proud and eager.

I was actually trying to work out a way to ask politely, why the hell should I care. But I sighed again and just looked at her.

"It's a very difficult question to answer. I mean, how do I know anybody besides myself is conscious, right? And if it's so hard to ask that of other humans how do we answer it about ants?"

Oh great, we were going to start in on a philosophical monologue. And I could see she was starting to hit her stride. I needed more coffee to deal with this, so I wandered over to the bench which runs along one wall. There is a hot water outlet there and cups. She followed, continuing her speech.

"What is special about conciousness? Is it possible to subtract it and still have complex functions like speech and planning and altruism? Or even simpler stuff like emotions?"

I put the coffee grounds in the cup, added the hot water and stood there stirring it for a while.

Zoe continued, "No. It turns out that consciousness is needed for an efficient, complex brain. It is no accident that evolution produced consciousness. We need it in order to think and plan and be motivated."

Still stirring the coffee, I asked "So the zombie problem has been solved?" not because I was particularly interested, but I wanted her to get to the main argument; Zoe tends to spend a long time going over background. She'd told me about the zombie problem before: If you can imagine people as zombies with no consciousness -- acting like people in every way, but without any inner feeling -- how can you ever prove anybody is conscious?

"Yes, it's solved, but only for bottom-up systems."

I put a metal gauze filter on the cup and poured the coffee into another cup. "Bottom-up means evolved, yeah?"

"Mmmm. And top-down is designed from the top, starting with complex, abstract concepts, solving them mathematically. That's how AI was done in the old days... It might never be conscious. That hasn't been solved yet --"

"The ants," I prompted.

"Ah, yes." She smiled and walked back to look at the wall-screen again. "They plan ahead to solve problems, they communicate abstract concepts, and they show a sense of self."

I looked skeptical again. "OK, I've seen spiders plan ahead. That is no big deal..."

"But it is! It's a very big deal. Planning ahead by itself is almost enough to prove consciousness. Many people dismiss planning, and other complex activities by saying," Zoe waved her hand deprecatingly, "oh, it's just instinct..."

"Yeah, I know, it pisses you off. You've told me before. Instinct is aptitude; intelligent behaviors are built upon that." I admire Zoe. She is smarter than anybody I know, but she is infuriatingly repetitive, and tends to waffle on around the subject.

"Exactly! A bird builds a nest because it's obvious to them that it's the best way to keep their eggs safe. Their intelligence in that area is higher. They aren't compelled to do it, they have an aptitude for it, the same way we have an aptitude for language. We aren't compelled to talk, we just naturally understand how to use it."

See what I mean about Zoe and repetition? I tried to guide her back to the topic. "Alright, how do you know ants communicate abstract concepts?"

She beamed proudly. She looks so gorgeous when she does that. "I've worked out their language."

This shouldn't have surprised me (this was Zoe, after all), but it did. It astonished me. "You can talk with ants?"

She giggled. "Yep. Come and see." She turned to the wall screen and the untidy group of boxes on the desk before it.

She spoke while she picked up a tiny microphone and clipped it to her collar. "The computers roughly translate back and forth between my speech and the taps and scents that the ants use to communicate." Then she reached down to a handle resting on the table before her. "This controls the robot's overall movement. The robot has some autonomy so that I don't have to control every little thing."

Using the handle she moved the point of view around inside the tunnel. Ants passed from time to time. Zoe pressed a button on the base of the lever and spoke, "Hello. I want food."

The little robot's antennae dipped in and out of view touching those of an ant which had just approached. At the greeting the ant had stopped. "Hello," came from a speaker on the wall. Then the ant produced a droplet of liquid between its jaws and offered it to the robot. "Food for you."

Zoe pressed the button again and said, "No. Thankyou."

The ant paused a second, somehow appearing puzzled. "Okay," came from the speaker. The ant swallowed the drop again, tapped antennae, "Goodbye," and skittered quickly past in that peculiar mechanical way insects do.

"They don't have a very big vocabulary, but it is definitely a language. It has a very simple syntax..."

I interrupted, "I gotta say Zoe, this is pretty amazing, but... honestly, it could have waited some hours till I woke up."

"But this isn't what I got you over here for."

I was stumped. "Huh?"

She grabbed my hand and led me to her kitchen. Her sink was covered in dirty dishes, and the dirty dishes were covered in ants. "What do I do about them?"

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2009-05-23 - some small changes