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How Octopi Morph Color

What cephalopods can teach us about language

By Jaron Lanier
Apr 2, 2006 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:51 AM


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Morphing used to be fun. Remember in Terminator 2 the computer-graphics effects that made it possible for the evil terminator to assume the form and visage of any person it encountered? The on-screen transformation violated the unwritten rules of what was allegedly possible to be seen and provided a deep, wrenching pleasure somewhere in the back of the viewer's brain. You could almost feel your neural machinery breaking apart and being glued back together.

Too bad the effect became a cliché. Nowadays you watch a television ad or a science fiction movie and an inner voice says, "Ho hum, just another morph." However, there's a video clip that I often show students and friends to remind them, and myself, of the transportive effects of anatomical transformation. This video is so shocking that most viewers can't process it the first time they see it—so they ask to see it again and again and again, until their mind has expanded enough to take it in.

The video was shot in 1997 by my friend Roger Hanlon while he was scuba diving off Grand Cayman Island. Roger is a researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole; his specialty is the study of cephalopods, a family of sea creatures that include octopuses, squids, and cuttlefishes. The video is shot from Roger's point of view as he swims up to examine an unremarkable rock covered in swaying algae. Suddenly, astonishingly, one-third of the rock and a tangled mass of algae morphs and reveals itself for what it really is: the waving arms of a bright white octopus. Its cover blown, the creature squirts ink at Roger and shoots off into the distance—leaving Roger, and the video viewer, slack-jawed.

The star of this video, Octopus vulgaris, is one of several cephalopod species capable of morphing, including the mimic octopus and the giant Australian cuttlefish. The trick is so weird that one day I tagged along with Roger on one of his research voyages, just to make sure he wasn't faking it with fancy computer-graphics tricks. By then, I was hooked on cephalopods. My friends have had to adjust to my obsession; they've grown accustomed to my effusive rants about these creatures. I can't bring myself to eat calamari anymore. As far as I'm concerned, cephalopods are the strangest smart creatures on Earth. They offer the best standing example of how truly different intelligent extraterrestrials (if they exist) might be from us, and they taunt us with clues about potential futures for our own species.

Morphing in cephalopods works somewhat similarly to how it works in computer graphics. Two components are involved: a change in the image or texture visible on a shape's surface and a change in the underlying shape itself. The "pixels" in the skin of a cephalopod are organs called chromatophores. These can expand and contract quickly, and each is filled with a pigment of a particular color. When a nerve signal causes a red chromatophore to expand, the "pixel" turns red. A pattern of nerve firings causes a shifting image—an animation—to appear on the cephalopod's skin. As for shapes, an octopus can quickly arrange its arms to form a wide variety of them, like a fish or a piece of coral, and can even raise welts on its skin to add texture.

Why morph? One reason is camouflage. (The octopus in the video is presumably trying to hide from Roger.) Another is dinner. One of Roger's video clips shows a giant cuttlefish pursuing a crab. The cuttlefish is mostly soft-bodied, the crab all armor. As the cuttlefish approaches, the medieval-looking crab snaps into a macho posture, waving its sharp claws at its foe's vulnerable body.

The cuttlefish responds with a bizarre and ingenious psychedelic performance. Weird images, luxurious colors, and successive waves of undulating lightning bolts and filigree swim across its skin. The sight is so unbelievable that even the crab seems disoriented; its menacing gesture is replaced for an instant by another that seems to express "Huh?" In that moment the cuttlefish strikes between cracks in the armor. It uses art to hunt! Among engineering researchers, the same maneuver is called giving a demo. Dazzle your potential financier with a demonstration of your project, then pounce before the glow fades.

As intelligent creatures go, cephalopods are perhaps the most "other" that we know; think of them as a dress rehearsal for the far-off day when we might encounter intelligent aliens. Cephalopod researchers love to share the latest stories about clever octopuses or emotional cuttlefish—stories that often involve daredevil escapes from aquarium tanks. In another of Roger's amazing videos, an octopus on a coral reef crosses a dangerous open stretch between coral heads. The animal assumes the posture, pattern, and coloration of a coral head, then stands on its tippy toes and slowly moves across open ground. The only things moving are the tips of the arms; the rest of the animal appears stationary. But here is the clever part: In shallow water at midday on a sunny, choppy day, intense shadows and light sweep across everything. Not only does the "moving rock" mimic them, it is careful to not exceed the speed of these light effects. It is fully aware of its appearance under changing conditions.

As a researcher who studies virtual reality, I can tell you exactly what emotion floods through me when I watch cephalopods morph: jealousy. Virtual reality, an immersive computer-graphics environment that a human can "enter" and then morph himself into various things, is a pale approximation of the experience. You can have a virtual body, or avatar, and do things like examine your hands or watch yourself in a virtual mirror. Some of the earliest experimental avatars in fact were aquatic, including one that allowed a person to inhabit a lobster's body.

The problem is that in order to morph, humans must design avatars in laborious detail in advance. Our software tools are not yet flexible enough to enable us, in virtual reality, to think ourselves into different forms. Why would we want to? Consider the existing benefits of our ability to create sounds with our mouths. We can make new noises and mimic existing ones, spontaneously and instantaneously. But when it comes to visual communication, we are hamstrung. We can mime, and indeed when I give lectures on cephalopods I like to pretend to be the crab and the cuttlefish to illustrate the tale. (More than one student has pointed out that with my hair as it is, I am looking more and more like a cephalopod.) We can learn to draw and paint, or use computer-graphics design software. But we cannot generate images at the speed with which we can imagine them.

Our vocal abilities are part of what enabled our species to develop spoken language. Likewise, our ability to draw pictures—along with the requisite brain structures—was preadaptive for written language. Suppose we had the ability to morph at will: What sort of language might that make possible? Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to "say" new things to one another?

For instance, instead of saying, "I'm hungry; let's go crab hunting," you might simulate your own transparency so your friends could see your empty stomach, or you might turn into a video game about crab hunting so you and your compatriots could get in a little practice before the actual hunt. I call this postsymbolic communication. Some people think that the ability to morph would just give you a new dictionary mapping to the same old set of ideas, with avatars in place of words, while others, including me, think there would be fundamental differences.

Here's another way to think about it. If cephalopods someday evolve to become intelligent creatures with civilizations, what might they do with their ability to morph? Would we be able to communicate with them? Perhaps they offer a useful surrogate for thinking about one way that intelligent aliens, if and wherever they are out there, might one day present themselves to us. By trying to develop new ways of communicating using morphing in virtual reality, we do at least a little to prepare for that possibility. We humans think a lot of ourselves as a species; we have a tendency to suppose that the way we think is the only way to think. Maybe we need to think again.

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