A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history and is a helpful reminder that all life-forms are in fact processes not things. The “you” of five years ago was made from different stuff than the “you” of today.
- Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our World, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
Merlin, a biologist and author, believes that fungi are astonishing organisms that have the power to change the way that we imagine and understand the living world to operate. When we hear the word ‘fungus’, we normally think of mushrooms, but most fungi live their lives not as mushrooms but as a branching, fusing networks of tubular cells called mycelial networks or mycelium. You can have mycelial networks which fit on a speck of dust and those that are known to range across hundreds of kilometres.
Mycelial networks are constantly revising their bodies according to what’s going on around them. So, a fungal network is embedded within its source of food, it puts itself in its food, and we put food in ourselves. They’re remodeling themselves all the time and there is no center of a mycelial network. Merlin also finds the coordination of mycelial networks to be exquisite, precise, refined, and “yet, there’s no one place — like we have with our brains, for example, and our hearts — where coordination is centrally located.”
The question is, what can we learn about theatre from fungi that have existed for millions of years and from neural networks of AI? How can we awaken the planetary network of theatre-practice? What will humanity even be in a world of artificial intelligence?
To explore these provocations, Merlin, along with mathematician and author of The Creativity Code Marcus du Sautoy, joined us for the season opener of Unrehearsed Futures (Season 4): There Will Be A Time…
Creativity and AI
For the last six years, the kind of network that has fascinated Marcus is that of AI. We call it ‘artificial intelligence’ but the British playwright, author and mathematician prefers to understand is as ‘alternative intelligence’, which has a different kind of social behaviour, like fungi do, compared to human networks.
World over, AI has become a bone of contention for scientists, thinkers, and developers, but the reason Marcus finds it interesting is that we’re creating something with code which is precise and different from our intelligence and, “great because that’s gives us a chance to do something more.”
Against dystopic narratives of AI, Marcus believes it is a positive tool and helpful for creative artists. AI is made up of code and algorithms which are mathematics. “So, we’ve got a piece of mathematics impacting society. At its heart mathematics is a very creative subject,” asserts Marcus, “Creativity has always been my protective shield and that’s why I think artificial intelligence can’t really do what I do, because I’m creative. How can a piece of code be creative?”
What’s exciting and threatening today is that code is being written in a bottom-up manner, he says. Earlier, it was the other way round where a human would write a code as a set of instructions which a machine would learn to execute. A human was still in control.
“Today, the idea is that you write some code that is able to then mutate, change, re-parameterize itself and become something new in its interaction with data,” explains Marcus. “The exciting thing is that this code has the possibility to start to drift away from the human. But it does mean that something that might emerge out of this learning process will be very unexpected.”
The creativity of AI is not about helping us be creative. Rather it is about arriving at a better definition of creativity. In his book, Marcus quotes jazz pianist Bernard Lubat who had a piece of AI called Continuator learn his style of jazz improvisation. Lubat then started a show of new things where he played duets with the AI machinery. “And he said he recognized that that’s him, but he had never thought of doing that before.”
In the book, Lubat says, “The system shows me ideas I could have developed, but that it would have taken me years to develop. It is years ahead of me, yet everything it plays is unquestionably me.” AI could essentially play the role of a collaborator in a creative process.
While AI is unembodied, it is learning from our embodiment – it is absorbing data, music which we hear, visuals we see, and it is learning about our emotional and physical world. It is complex, and we don’t really know why it’s making its decisions. “It’s like a mushroom that has sprout and we don’t know what’s going on underneath,” describes Marcus, “And we’re going to need tools to examine what I believe is not a conscious world, yet. I believe it could be conscious, but it is a subconscious world that even the AI can’t articulate why it’s making its decisions. We’re going to need ways to probe inside there.”
Being and becoming
Merlin describes fungal networks as collaborative and constantly in touch with and embedded in their surroundings, which includes other organisms. “Fungal networks are not just coordinating and communicating with themselves. They’re coordinating and communicating with other organisms too in all sorts of fascinating ways that we’re only just beginning to understand,” he says.
It is fascinating to think these organisms are very powerful to provide new metaphors to think and play with creatively in our minds. Merlin also talks about his experience with improvisations as a jazz pianist. The more he improvised with others and listened to others’ improvisations, the more it struck him that the history of life is a story of improvisation. “Organisms are improvising their way through time, within the field of possibility and constraint that’s available to them. We have, perhaps, a larger field of possibility and choice available to us, than a bacterium.”
Nonetheless, all organisms are responding to changes in their environment in potentially novel ways. Merlin believes that this improvisational nature of many artistic practices, in whatever mediums, can tell us something about how life proceeds and can connect us in a fundamental way to what it means to be a living organism. “Being is really becoming, given that the universe is made up of processes rather than things, but becoming is always becoming with, given that all processes are inextricably entangled with numberless others. So, in this sense, improvising, playing and exploring together, in whatever medium, can tell us something about how life unfolds, how it’s unfolded in the past, and how it might unfold in the future.”
An empathic AI
Marcus believes that what we want is an “empathic AI” which understands us and, perhaps, is on our side. In some ways AI is already better at empathy than humans are and there are examples for this. AI is able to recognise a false smile as opposed to a genuine smile better than a human can, which can help autistic people navigate social interactions. “AI is actually helping people will be more empathetic,” he says. But we aren’t always the best data set to learn from to be empathetic, he feels given the number of racist, misogynistic, hateful Twitter bots one can find.
There is also an idea that after a while AI is going to leave us humans behind and take off on its own. This has got to do with its relationship to time. Marcus talks about the movie Her where a human falls in love with an operating system, only to be dumped by that piece of AI later. “The element of time here is quite interesting,” he says, “Nature’s relationship with time and a forest’s concept of time is very different. A mountain’s concept of time is very different. AI has a very fast relationship with time and so it finds humans in that film, ultimately, rather slow and boring and it’s already downloaded the whole of the learning process of it. AI knows exactly where they’re coming from. And so, the AI dumps the human, and goes off with another AI, because that’s more fascinating for it.”
One of the challenges AI currently faces is that it doesn’t have an inner world of its own. Even a software like ChatGPT doesn’t have anything interesting to say beyond 10,000 words; it begins to meander and feels stuck.
So, is storytelling still ours? Merlin and Marcus believe so.
Merlin believes that these large and complex language models and neural nets are not sentient yet. “But ultimately, we are being reflected back to ourselves in ever more complex ways,” he says. “And so, I struggle to imagine a world where an AI could have any kind of ethical sense that wasn’t being derived from some kind of training set they might have warped and morphed.”
Being a complex amplifier of experience
In response, Marcus counters that the human brain is like AI: a huge matrix of statistical decision-making processes that one neuron will fire over another as synapses will. This is projected through a “low dimensional” tool called language, which articulates this complex decision-making process. For the fungus nerd in Merlin, his fantasy is to imagine what kind of inner life fungi spread across thousands of kilometres and centuries would have. He mentions philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who was a proponent of process thinking, meaning that he believed reality was made of processes and not fixed things. So, the fundamental nature of reality, says Merlin, is to change its processes unfolding in time. Sometimes those processes become stabilized to create what seems to us, on our timescales, with our senses, to be something fixed and stable, such as a table or a stone block in a building that’s thousands of years old, and so forth. Whitehead was also a pan experientialist. “For him,” explains Merlin, “experience is a fundamental part of a reality. So, we are complex amplifiers of experience with our complex bodies and nervous systems. But atoms also have some kind of rudimentary experience. And molecules are more complex amplifiers, larger molecules, likewise, are more complex amplifiers of experience. I find this helpful, because it invites us to see consciousness as part of the warp and weft of the universe rather than something that arises, inexplicably, in the complex brains of humans and other similar organisms.”
From this point of view, thinking about the fungal network, Merlin’s hunch is that fungal networks are complex, amplifiers of experience, that there’s something that it is like ‘to be’ a fungal network. These are sensitive bodies, he says, bathed in rich fields of sensory information. They’re sensitive to light, gravity, temperature, any number of chemicals, acidity and so forth. “These data streams are being integrated in their bodies, and it’s affecting the decisions that they make in response to changes in their environment. I think their experience would be very much unlike ours,” Merlin feels strongly. “But if we think about them as complex amplifiers of experience, rather than mindless automata, then it’s not such a strange question to ask, what would it be like to have that experience as that organism?”
As the conversation comes to an end, Marcus and Merlin agree that theatre is an interesting place to explore consciousness and that the practice of it is about trying to understand the collective consciousness through interactions of the network.