It’s Time To Take Octopus Civilization Seriously

Qijin Xu/Octopus

Intelligence is a hot topic of discussion these days. Human intelligence. Plant intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All kinds of intelligence. But while the natures of human and plant intelligence are subjects mired in heated debate, derision, and controversy, the subject of artificial intelligence inspires an altogether different kind of response: fear. In particular, fear for the continued existence of any human civilization whatsoever. From Elon Musk to Stephen Hawking, the geniuses of the Zeitgeist agree. AI will take our jobs and then, if we’re not careful, everything else too, down to every last molecule in the universe. A major Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, has turned managing the rise of AI into one of the core principles of his political platform. It is not a laughing matter.

But artificial general intelligence is not the type of intelligence that humanity should fear most. Far from the blinking server rooms of Silicon Valley or the posh London offices of DeepMind, another type of intelligence lurks silently out of human sight, biding its time in the Lovecraftian deep. Watching. Waiting. Organizing. Unlike artificial intelligence, this intelligence is not hypothetical, but very real. Forget about AGI. It’s time to worry about OGI—octopus general intelligence.

In late 2017, it was reported that an underwater site called “Octlantis” had been discovered by researchers off the coast of Australia. Normally considered to be exceptionally solitary, fifteen octopuses were observed living together around a rocky outcropping on the otherwise flat ocean floor. Fashioning homes—dens—for themselves out of shells, the octopuses were observed mating, fighting, and communicating with each other. Most importantly, this was not the first time that this had happened. Another similar site called “Octopolis” had been previously discovered in the vicinity in 2009.

One of the researchers, Stephanie Chancellor, described the octopuses in “Octlantis” as “true environmental engineers.” The octopuses were observed conducting both mate defense and “evictions” of octopuses from dens, defending their property rights from infringement by other octopuses. The other “Octopolis” site had been continuously inhabited for at least seven years. Given the short lifespans of octopuses, lasting only a few years on the high end, it is clear that “Octopolis” has been inhabited by several generations of octopuses. We are presented with the possibility of not only one multi-generational octopus settlement chosen for defense from predators and engineered for octopus living, but two. And those are just the ones we’ve discovered. The oceans cover over 70% of Earth’s surface.

None of the three experts I spoke with for this article would rule out the possibility of further octopus settlements.

The octopus is a well-known creature, but poorly understood. The primal fear inspired by the octopus frequently surfaces in horror movies, pirate legends, political cartoons depicting nefarious and tentacled political enemies, and, understandably, in Japanese erotic art. For all that, the octopus is, to most people, just another type of seafood you can order at the sushi bar. But the octopus is more than just sushi. It’s more than the sum of its eight arms. A lot more, in fact—it may be the most alien creature larger than a speck of dust to inhabit the known ecosystems of the planet Earth. Moreover, it’s not just strange. It’s positively talented.

Octopuses can fully regenerate limbs. They can change the color and texture of their skin at will, whether to camouflage themselves, make a threat, or for some other unknown purpose. They can even “see” with their skin, thanks to the presence of the light-sensitive protein rhodopsin, also found in human retinas. They can shoot gobs of thick black ink with a water jet, creating impenetrable smokescreens for deceit and escape. Octopuses can use their boneless, elastic bodies to shapeshift, taking on the forms of other animals or even rocks. Those same bodies allow even the larger species of octopuses to squeeze through holes as small as one inch in diameter. The octopus’ arms are covered in hundreds of powerful suckers that are known to leave visible “octo-hickeys” on humans. The larger ones can hold at least 35 lbs. each. The suckers can simultaneously taste and smell. All octopus species are venomous.

Despite all of these incredible abilities, the octopus’ most terrifying feature remains its intelligence. The octopus has the highest brain-to-body-mass ratio of any invertebrate, a ratio that is also higher than that of many vertebrates. Two thirds of its neurons, however, are located in its many autonomous arms, which can react to stimuli and even identify and grab food after being severed from the rest of the octopus, whether still dead or alive. In other words, the intelligence of an octopus is not centralized. It is decentralized, like a blockchain. Like blockchains, this makes them harder to kill. It has been reported that octopuses are capable of observational learning, short- and long-term memory, tool usage, and much more. One might wonder: if octopuses have already mastered blockchain technology, what else are they hiding?

We can see octopuses frequently putting this intelligence to good use, and not only in their burgeoning aquatic settlements. Some octopuses are known to use coconut shells for shelter, even dismantling and transporting the shell only to reassemble it later. In laboratory settings, octopuses are able to solve complex puzzles and open different types of latches in order to obtain food. They don’t stop there, though. Captive octopuses have been known to escape their tanks, slither across the floor, climb into another tank, feast on the helpless fish and crabs within, and then return to their original tank. Some do it only at night, knowingly keeping their human overseers in the dark. Octopuses do not seem to have qualms about deceiving humans. They are known to steal bait from lobster traps and climb aboard fishing boats to get closer to fishermen’s catches.

One octopus in New Zealand even managed to escape an aquarium and make it back to the sea. When night fell and nobody was watching, “Inky”—his human name, as we do not know how octopuses refer to themselves in private—climbed out of his tank, across the ground, and into a drainpipe leading directly to the ocean.

Given the advanced intelligence and manifold abilities of octopuses, it may not be a surprise, in hindsight, that they are developing settlements off the coast of Australia. By establishing a beachhead in the Pacific Ocean, a nascent octopus civilization would be well-placed to challenge the primary geopolitical powers of the 21st century, namely, the United States and China. Australia itself is sparsely inhabited and rich in natural resources vital for any advanced civilization. The country’s largely coastal population would be poorly prepared to deal with an invasion from the sea.

I spoke with Piero Amodio, a graduate student at the University of Cambridge who has been interviewed by The New York Times on his research into octopus intelligence. “[Octopuses] live in almost all marine habitats, from ocean depths to shallow waters, and from tropical to polar regions,” he said. “The fact that octopuses tend to have a solitary lifestyle is something extremely interesting because they differ from many other groups of large-brained animals.” Amodio linked me to a paper documenting food and den sharing among octopuses. What if they are, in fact, not so different? What if they become social on a scale matching or surpassing humans? Is humanity prepared to grapple with an organized challenge rising from all corners of the globe?

This new information does raise one important question: what are the state of human-octopus relations, and how might they develop in the future? Currently, octopuses are more than just aware of us. They are able to recognize individual human beings and develop preferences for them. If you are on good terms with an octopus, you may be grabbed and pulled into a tank, perhaps for a hospitable visit to the den. Alternately, you may be blasted and soaked with cold water. No octo-hickeys for you. Although many octopuses have shown obvious displeasure with captivity, they are fortunately not generally known to attack humans. There is, however, video footage of at least one dangerous altercation with a human diver. Graziano Fiorito, a senior researcher at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples, Italy, told me that aggression is “very rare” and done in self-defense. But with an animal as intelligent and disciplined as the octopus, could that same peaceful nature become warlike aggression if provoked?

Roko’s Basilisk is a well-known thought experiment postulating that a supremely powerful artificial intelligence might retroactively punish humans who did not work to bring it into existence. In this light, it is fortunate that octopuses have been legally protected by animal welfare laws during experimentation—the only invertebrates to receive this protection. We can only imagine what horrible, tentacled punishments for humanity may have been avoided in the event of an octopus intelligence singularity.

Animal welfare laws notwithstanding, human-octopus relations are clearly insufficiently advanced to guarantee stable and productive cooperation in the future. Octopus meat remains a fixture of many national cuisines. Octopus farming is a major industry, despite warnings and objections from the scientific community. Not one national government in the world has clarified its policies regarding octopus civilization. (Emails to the White House requesting the administration’s comment on this matter went unanswered.)

The first step to improving human-octopus relations would be a global shutdown of all consumption and internment, whether for research or commercial purposes, of octopuses. As this plan is patently unrealistic and completely absurd, more creative solutions will have to be developed in order to route around sclerotic global institutions unwilling or unable to meet the challenge of intelligent cephalopod life. One option may be to establish persistent contact with leaders in the octopus community to communicate our goodwill. While the linguistic barrier remains an unsolved problem, the incentives to solve it are enormous. Cultural and scientific exchange with octopuses could greatly enrich humanity’s understanding of undersea life, blockchain technology, and non-standard tactile numeracies.

Hostile approaches must also remain on the table in case peaceable cooperation proves to be impossible. Although the advents of aviation and long-range missiles have rendered coastal fortifications somewhat deprecated in modern military conflict, human regimes would do well to bolster their brown water borders in the event of a kinetic assault by octopodal forces. Extension of maritime frontiers into international waters would also provide a much-needed geopolitical buffer zone, provided it did not veer into encroachment upon cephalopod territory. With powerful suckers studding an arm span up to 4 meters long, distance is key to defense from the octopus. Sanctions could prove useful in denying octopuses any strategic reserves of coconut shells or other armor.

There is a more speculative moonshot option as well. Given the relatively short lifespans of octopuses, it would be possible to intern a number of them in a research station with the goal of selectively breeding them for intelligence, combat aptitude, and most importantly, loyalty to humans. With adequate funding, a team could make significant progress in just a few decades towards developing a new species of killer octopus bred to defend humanity against the threat of a rival octopus civilization. Just as OpenAI took the lead in confronting the problem of artificial intelligence by aiming to deliberately develop friendly AI, OctoAI may need to take the lead in confronting the problem of octopus intelligence by developing it ourselves in a humanity-friendly direction. We may have to fight ink with ink.

A moonshot project such as this has the added perk that it could be easily funded and carried out by a rogue government agency or single eccentric billionaire, such as SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son. The Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, for example, would provide an ideal research site. They are a short boat ride away from the capital of unconventional moonshot projects in Silicon Valley, as well as being located in the natural territory of the Giant Pacific Octopus. The islands’ status as a nature preserve would provide a convenient cover story for the public. Intruders, spies, and conscientious objectors could be thrown into the octopus tank for disposal and their disappearances blamed on harsh Pacific weather. In fact, given the ideal conditions of the site, this may already be happening. Is it a coincidence that the Farallon Islands are closed to the public?

If all fallbacks fail, mutually assured destruction will be the only surefire way to prevent octopus civilization from annihilating humanity and conquering the cosmos. “I tend to think that future-of-evolution questions are always limited by how long this planet continues to sustain life,” said Joseph Vitti, a doctoral student at Harvard University who has published on cephalopod cognition. “I tend to think that a natural or man-made disaster could easily wipe us out before enough evolutionary time passes for such major changes [in octopus social systems] to occur in the coleoid cephalopod lineage.” If we cannot save ourselves, we just may have to produce such a man-made disaster in order to save the rest of the universe.

The future may look bleak. Just as our social institutions enter a time of stagnation, crisis and despair, a heavily armed challenger surfaces from the untraversed depths. But humanity has faced terrible problems before and emerged not only victorious, but stronger too. To survive, our governing institutions will need to have robust but flexible coordination, quick and skilled decision-making, and the capacity for subterfuge, dissimulation, and intelligence. Just like the octopus. And that is what Palladium Magazine is all about.

This story is satire. It’s April 1st. All quotes, however, are real, as are more of the octopus facts than you would like to believe.

@Marko Jukic is a theoretical linguist based in San Francisco. He studied languages at Northwestern University before dropping out to pursue entrepreneurship.