Human 2.0 — Embodying the Octopus

Why a cybernetic body need not be a human one. Musings on cephalopod biology, embodied cognition, and the future of transhumanism.

I’ve been reading the brilliant Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It got me thinking about the many ways we are similar to our cousins the cephalopods, particularly octopuses, in terms of behaviour.

But what if we were similar to cephalopods biologically? Morphologically? Should we be thinking outside the box when designing our cyborg bodies? Are there aspects of cephalopod biology we would be foolish to pass up the chance to incorporate into Human 2.0?

Intelligent aliens

But first, some fun facts about our many-legged aquatic friends, our very distant cousins, the cephalopods, including octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and nautiluses. Our common ancestor, a minuscule flatworm, is found on an evolutionary fork 600 million years into the past in the Precambrian era. For comparison, our last common ancestor with chimpanzees lived only 6 million years ago.

The playful and wily antics of octopuses (as well as their psychic, World Cup results predicting powers) have been noted in numerous anecdotes: escaping their tank to poach food; short-circuiting unpleasant lights in their laboratory environments. Squirting their least favourite experimenter with jets of water and leading their favourite scuba diver hand-in-tentacle to show off their den also hints that these creatures have rich inner lives and a penchant for being vindictive braggarts. (Or am I indulging in anthropomorphism?)

Such anecdotes from scuba enthusiasts and marine researchers, as well as formal study of cephalopod behaviour, are a sure indication of one thing: following the divergence, intelligent life evolved twice-over on Earth. In a way, according to Godfrey-Smith, this makes octopuses the closest thing to an intelligent alien we will ever encounter.

Similarities between cephalopods and vertebrates

  • “camera” eyes with a lens for focusing images on the retina

  • large brain (relative to body mass) and nervous system

  • ability to adapt to new and unusual circumstances

  • awareness of captivity

  • learning by attending to reward and punishment

  • short term and long term memory

  • sleep (including REM sleep —confirmed in cuttlefish at least)

  • expressiveness

  • playfulness

  • recognition of individuals, including those of other species

  • “inventiveness, curiosity, and sensory acuity”

  • the use of found objects as shelter

Embodied cognition

“Plato tells us that the philosopher, unlike the shoddy butcher, cuts reality at the joints. Despite everything, then, we begin with the body. Before the idea, one is before the meat — a meatphysics precedes every metaphysics”

— ‘Seduce or Die’, Jon Roffe

“Meatphysics” indeed. Embodied cognition refers to the ‘smartness of the body,’ i.e. its ability to encode information about the environment and how to navigate it.

Our minds are tethered but not chained to our bodies; you can feel an affinity with a rubber hand or experience the illusion of having an opposite-sex body using virtual reality and congruent sensory input. Nevertheless, our physicality shapes not only how we perceive ourselves but how we interact with the outside world.

Sensor-motor processes and the morphology of the body have a profound, defining impact on cognition. For instance, the size of an animal’s body determines how it perceives time, with smaller animals such as insects and birds experiencing finer timescales as an adaptation to keep safe from predators.

Consider also the specifics of our sensory organs—the limited bandwidths of hearing and vision, our inability to echolocate or sense electric or magnetic fields—and the effects on how we interact and adapt to our environment.

In short, embodied cognition is why I have the following suggestions regarding the future augmentation of the human body. (If you want to know more about this topic, check out You Are Not a Brain in a Vat.)

Human 2.0

“I want a perfect body

I want a perfect soul”

(Radiohead, 1993, Creep)

I’m not going to suggest we start squirting ink or jets of water at each other—wet floors are an OH&S issue and assault with bodily fluids is a crime. Nor do I suggest we replace walking with jet propulsion (that’s how you end up in the belly of a Sarlacc beast). The benefits of two more hearts or copper-based blood are also unclear. And while I certainly wouldn’t mind an extra arm to hold my latte while I fumble with my train ticket and phone, I’m not suggesting extra appendages either. (Though who am I to stop you?)

However, there are several aspects of cephalopod biology that I would like to incorporate, namely:

Flexibility of form

‘Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless—like water.’

—Bruce Lee

Cephalopods divested themselves of their external shell during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution, and they’ve been living the dolce vita ever since. Look at that ancient nautiloid below, looks like it’s wearing a dunce’s cap. Pathetic!

Imagine being unencumbered by fixity of form. Shapeless and ever-shifting—imagine the flexibility of mind it would engender. Not to mention, the ability to hide in narrow crevices and fit our whole body through a hole the size of an eyeball.

More arms, and more arm neurons

I’ve changed my mind on this score—Human 2.0 could use an extra cup holder or six. While octopuses do possess a central brain, twice as many neurons are contained in their many tentacles. Well, technically squid and cuttlefish have tentacles, while octopuses have six “arms” and two “legs” not favoured for gripping and handling objects. (Taxonomy is so very taxing!)

Having a more distributed and less centralised nervous system sounds like one heck of an upgrade to me. Imagine all that we could achieve if we were free to focus on highfalutin’ matters rather than tend to every aspect of arm movement. I want my hands to be able to improvise. And yes, I’m getting comic book Doc Oc vibes too. (I, for one, vow to use my extra appendages for good rather than evil.)

I also wonder, what would it be like to be more tactile-based rather than so heavily vision-orientated?

Chromatophores

Volitional colour change for camouflage, courtship (or rejection thereof: female squids use a white stripe to turn away suitors who are not up to snuff), or displays of aggression—the possibilities are endless. Sure, humans have blanching, blushing and mottling—but I want more. I want to literally go green with envy… then gold, purple, rust, and a pale, speckled grey.

Human 2.0 can’t leave personal expression to clothing, make-up, piercings, dyed hair, and static, inked designs. I want ‘pixel-like sacs of colour’ under my skin expressing the ‘electrochemical tumult’ inside me. Down with metaphors, up with chromatophores! I want my every brainwave displayed in technicolour on my body, an inscrutable kaleidoscope of constantly shifting patterns and hues.

Design flaws to avoid

Having an oesophagus running through the middle of our brains would not be an aspect of octopus biology to emulate. Ideally, swallowing a fishbone shouldn’t result in an impromptu lobotomy.

Some other ways it could all go terribly wrong

Oddly enough, the fact of your limbs being attached to you or being able to move and feel them doesn’t guarantee a sense of bodily ownership. One must have an accurate mental representation (body schema) of one’s body in order to feel connected to it.

Individuals who feel their body parts are “wrong” or somehow extraneous, such as those suffering gender or bodily integrity dysphoria, have body schemas which fail to embody the totality of their physical reality. Here’s hoping your identity adapts to accommodate a cybernetic cephalopod body lest you find yourself bemused to be betentacled.

The sky’s the limit

There’s no reason to limit Human 2.0 purely to advantages of the cephalopodic kind. We’re talking a veritable smorgasbord of Doctor Moreauesque modification. I say the future is bright, and Human 2.0 can see every bandwidth of it!

Further reading

Anderson, M. L. (2003). Embodied cognition: A field guide. Artificial Intelligence, 149(1), 91–130. doi: 10.1016/S0004-3702(03)00054-7

Feusner, J. D., Lidström, A., Moody, T. D., Dhejne, C., Bookheimer, S. Y., & Savic, I. (2017). Intrinsic network connectivity and own body perception in gender dysphoria. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 11(4), 964-976. doi: 10.1007/s11682-016-9578-6

Manzouri, A., & Savic, I. (2019). Possible neurobiological underpinnings of homosexuality and gender dysphoria. Cerebral Cortex, 29(5), 2084-2101. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhy090

Godfrey-Smith, P. (2016). Other Minds: The octopus and the evolution of intelligent life. London: William Collins.

Healy, K., McNally, L., Ruxton, G. D., Cooper, N., & Jackson, A. L. (2013). Metabolic rate and body size are linked with perception of temporal information. Animal Behaviour, 86(4), 685–696. doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2013.06.018

Ionescu, T., & Vasc, D. (2014). Embodied cognition: challenges for psychology and education. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 128, 275–280.

Tacikowski, P., Fust, J., & Ehrsson, H. H. (2020). Fluidity of gender identity induced by illusory body-sex change. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-14. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-71467-z

Tsakiris, M. (2010). My body in the brain: a neurocognitive model of body-ownership. Neuropsychologia, 48(3), 703-712. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.09.034

van Dijk, M. T., van Wingen, G. A., van Lammeren, A., Blom, R. M., de Kwaasteniet, B. P., Scholte, H. S., & Denys, D. (2013). Neural basis of limb ownership in individuals with body integrity identity disorder. PLoS One, 8(8), e72212. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072212


Thanks for reading! Feel free to buy me a coffee if feeling whimsically generous (or stingy but contradictory).

Leave a comment