There should be more fanfare about this, Eric thought, as he looked down at the terminal. It was late, the staff had gone home. The download had taken longer that he had expected. All that knowledge, he thought, and a big personality to boot. He could wait until tomorrow, when he could show his colleagues. Better yet, he could call the donors, make a big demonstration. But he knew he wouldn’t wait. He had completed the project. His life’s work. Apotheosis.
The cursor was blinking expectantly:
23:28 [email protected]:$
The coffee pot still had some coffee left in it. This was going to happen. Eric began typing.
23:28 [email protected]:$ ./brainsimulation ~/models/Paul.Roberts/10.14.2032
Let there be life, he thought.
Paul took a macabre enjoyment out of watching the reactions of visitors to his devastated body. He started with the mouth. Only a few dropped open in surprise, most only turned into a hard line, or maybe a slight tremor. Next the nose: would it wrinkle in disgust, either at the antisepsis of the hospital or the sight before them? Or would it be the flaring of a sharp intake of breath, the surprise at seeing the dark transformation that had occurred.
The eyes, as they always did, were the tellers of the true story. Would their eyes dart down, taking in his emaciated frame, the outline still visible under the thin hospital sheet? Would their eyes only flash over him before finding something else in the room to lock onto, maybe the window or the flowers his nurse kept fresh on the side of the bed. Some even glanced at his exposed arm, at the digital tattoo that to informed eyes told the story of a battle being fought and lost within the bloodstream. Most often, they would look Paul straight in the eye, unable or unwilling to look away from the last remaining part of him that still flashed with life, with the insight and intelligence that had defined his career.
Paul knew this was not a typical visit when he saw his guest’s mouth turn up slightly at the corners. Not happiness, at least not overtly. More satisfaction. And his eyes, how they brightened. Could that be hope? An emotion Paul had not felt or seen since August 24th, the day the outlook had changed from desperate to something worse, the word he still struggled with: terminal.
“It’s good to see you, Paul.” Eric said, his features shifting into a more studied expression: happiness at seeing his old friend with the smile, concern and sympathy with the knotted brow.
“Been a while.” Paul said, his expression mostly the same as it had been the last 3 weeks: exhaustion, with frequent visits from grimaces of pain. “I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Well, it looks like you’ve heard from just about everyone else.” Eric said, his eyes taking in the sloppy pile of get well cards, some still showing frozen images of well-wishers caught mid-pleasantry, before landing on one, a hand written note on yellow lined paper. “Wow, even Dr. Raleigh. You still keep in touch with him?”
“He kept in touch with me,” Paul said. “Or at least my work.”
“Well, he should. You’ve managed to debunk two of his books.” Eric said.
“Couldn’t quite make the hat trick.” Paul said.
Eric acknowledged the joke, if it could be called that, with a smile but it hung heavily in the air between them until Paul gestured to the seat next the bed and asked, “Can you stay for a bit?”
Eric nodded, sliding into the chair next to the door, rather than the one Paul was motioning towards. The easier to leave, a mostly vestigial therapist’s instinct told Paul, he wants to be able to make a clean exit. The researcher’s mind chided the therapist’s for being uncharitable, but the impression stuck.
Never a therapist himself, Eric found himself struggling to think of what to say next. Paul knew the value of silence, knew that his old friend had something to say. Strangely, with his clock ticking down so rapidly, Paul had found a surprising supply of patience. Maybe it was the knowledge that he was done. He’d written his last article, counseled his last client, ran his last study. Now there was nothing to do but wait.
“Paul, I’m here because I’m wondering if you could help me with something.” Eric blurted, knowing that tact and salesmanship would be wasted on Paul. “With a study that I’m working on.”
Paul’s eyes narrowed, though Eric couldn’t tell if it was in reaction to the request or in pain. Probably both, he thought.
“What’s the study?”
Paul could tell it was the opening Eric was looking for. He smile became that much more legitimate, his posture straightened. Now, Paul saw the Eric that review boards and potential donors saw. Eric, for his part, began the pitch.
“How would you like to live forever?”
Paul awoke to a nightmare. A common kind, one immediately recognizable to a veteran therapist: he was floating in darkness, without sensation, unable to open his eyes or move any part of his body. Paul knew that this sort of nightmare was associated with being overwhelmed by a situation, feeling powerless against it. I did just die, he thought.
The realization was immediate. It worked, warred with, I died, for Paul’s attention. He didn’t feel afraid. Nor did he feel elated. How could he? Can fear exist without a heart to beat faster, without a stomach to drop? It was more an awareness that these were feelings that should be happening, that would happen normally.
He had died, had been born again with eternal life, and felt nothing.
The night started with a shot of tequila, hastily poured and slapped into a surprised Paul’s hand.
“I got in.” Eric announced, a grin nearly splitting his face. “We’re doing shots.”
Paul glanced at the letter Eric was cradling like a newborn, and spied the logo on the corner. “Caltech? You’re kidding!”
“Don’t act so surprised.” Eric said, his brow furrowing in mock anger.
“I’m not suprised you got in, I’m surprised you’re wasting this opportunity on Cuervo.” Paul tossed the tequila into his mouth. “We..” he began, the first word coming out in a strangled croak. “Should crack open the Maker’s Mark for this.”
Paul had not yet honed his insight, his talent for spotting discrepancies, so it wasn’t until the Maker’s Mark had been well and truly “cracked open” that he thought to ask. “Caltech has a psychology program?”
Eric, who now reclined on the battered and stained couch that had served as his bed after many a late study night at Paul’s apartment, glanced down at the letter that now lay strewn across the coffee table. “I didn’t apply for the psychology department.” He said. “I applied for computer science.”
Paul had to process for a moment before exclaiming, “What the hell do you know about computer science?”
“I know enough that I’m not lonely on Friday nights when I don’t have a date.” He said, “And I can tell the difference between Facebook and Myspace.”
“That’s enough to get into a PhD program in Caltech? Shit, I should have applied.” Paul said. “What are you even studying?”
“Same thing I’m studying now, the mind.” Eric said, looking as smug as only a newly anointed PhD candidate could.
Paul groaned. “Good god, you’re going to be one of those people using computers as a metaphor for brains? Hard drives as long term memory, RAM as short term memory, that kind of thing?”
Eric picked up the nearly empty bottle of whiskey and peered at it before replying. “A.I.”
“I’m serious. The thesis I proposed deals with modeling the neural connections of a human brain in a computer simulation.”
“You’re downgrading,” Paul declared. “You’re going from studying a true thinking apparatus to something that is one thousand times less powerful. You’ll be on your deathbed before you even have the technology to model a chimp.”
“Wrong,” Eric said, “Computers are 5 years from overtaking the processing power of a human brain, maybe less.”
“Processing, fine, sure. The calculator on my phone can answer math problems quicker than I can. Does that make it smarter than me?”
“If you think of a mind as an intensely inefficient and inaccurate arithmetic calculator, then yes.”
Paul and Eric were both at that fragile intersection between drunkenness and sobriety where many academics will say the greatest theoretical work is done. A magic point where inhibitions were lowered, assumptions questioned, wits still mostly sharp.
“Think about a brain,” Eric continued. “Reduce it to nothing more than it’s basic component, a neuron. A single cell, its only function to carry an electric charge. At any given moment, every thought you have and impulse your brain processes are carried by billions of neurons, which are each either on,” Eric raised a single finger, “or off.” Now the finger and thumb formed an O. “Billions upon billions of 1s and 0s.”
“Are you talking about binary code?” Paul asked.
“The basic language of any computer, be it the one you have on your desk or the one you keep in your skull.”
“Alright,” Paul said, “but here’s the problem. A computer might run on binary, do billions or trillions or whatever of calculations per second. Your brain, on the other hand, has billions of neurons that are either 1s or 0s at the same time. It’s the difference between serial processing,” Paul grabbed a pen out of his pocket and started writing a meaningless stream of binary on the cover of an empty pizza box that was sitting on the coffee table: 01011010101101010. “And parallel processing.” Now he wrote binary in several layers:
“Only a billion times over, and at the same time. That’s the difference between us and a pocket calculator. It can count up those 1s and 0s faster but we can take in information from our eyes, our ears, our memories, our creativity, and still do calculations all at once without even knowing we’re doing it.” Paul leaned back on the couch, knowing as he did that he was having an argument in Eric’s home court.
“You’re right, of course” Eric said, “But what if I took a billion pocket calculators and put them together?”
Paul looked incredulous. “Is that what you put in your research proposal? A billion calculators?”
“More or less. Talked about how increased processing speed can overcome parallel deficits, a single processor can do multiple calculations before the ‘brain’ takes another incremental step forward, that sort of thing.”
“Well I for one welcome our new robot overlords.” Paul said, raising his glass and downing the contents, which by this point was comprised of formerly frozen water with a whiskey flavor. “But what happened to counseling? What happened to helping people?”
Eric’s eyes were lighting up now. “Don’t you see the potential in this?”
“Sure, of course. Smart phones that are actually smart, ATMs that can hold a conversation, robots creating symphonies, everybody loses their job because machines are doing the thinking for all of us.”
Eric brushed away the comment with a wave of his hand. “I’m not talking about putting brains into phones. I’m talking about recreating a human mind, a real living person’s mind, in software. All of their memories, thoughts, experiences, capabilities, flaws, their whole personality.” Eric hesitated, then committed: “Their soul.”
“So you’re talking about modeling, with perfect accuracy, the brain. I’ll concede that for the sake of argument.” Paul said begrudgingly. “Let’s even take neurotransmitters and other brain chemistry as something you can model effectively. Assuming it is possible, isn’t there more to the mind than there is to the brain? Do you really think a soul can be reduced to 1s and 0s, no matter how many, and downloaded? Or is there something beyond the fatty lump of meat that we keep in our skulls that makes up the creativity and consciousness of a human being?”
Eric raised his hands, capitulating. “If I knew that, I’d probably have gotten a better stipend. And anywayl, that’s the beauty of doing the research. Those are the questions that we get to answer.”
Paul felt the liquor pushing him past the point of academic curiosity into the realm of spiritual serenity. “Well, good luck finding someone to fund that research. I mean, who would volunteer to have their soul maybe downloaded into a computer?”
“I think you’re missing the implication here.” Eric said, “So let me lay it out for you.
“How would you like to live forever?”
Darkness was too bright a word for Paul’s universe. Darkness is the absence of light, but what is the absence of eyes to see with? Ears to hear with? In this place, or this non-place, Creation had not happened. The Lord had proclaimed, Let there be light, and the universe had shouted back, NO!
Paul was not aware of how much time had past. He was only aware that it had been too much. Without days and nights, without even heartbeats, he had only his thoughts to measure time. It had been a wide threshold, the point when he could still believe that they would soon be connecting a video camera, or artificial eyes, or even somehow contacting him directly, wiring messages directly into his brain.. He wasn’t sure when he had stopped believing, but he was well past that now. Time was relative, all he knew was that it was too long.
Years, Paul thought, Years at least. Years in the most solitary confinement yet invented by science. Idly, Paul wondered if he could go mad. Hopefully, Paul thought, Insanity would be quite a relief.
He was not sad. Can there be sadness without eyes to cry?
Every lab technician and research assistant know that the first step once you’ve recruited a human subject is informed consent. The subject must be aware of what he is volunteering for to the greatest extent possible that will not compromise the study. All potential risks and benefits must be highlighted before the subject can agree to be part of the study. Most frequently, this is done by written contract.
Eric had explained the project, the study. Paul would be the first human being to be totally recorded and modeled in a computer system. It wasn’t true immortality, Eric had allowed. A fire could burn down the two story building that would house the massive computer system that was needed to run the simulation. There was the very real possibility that an organization, maybe religious zealots or some other activist philosophers, would take offense at the idea that a soul could be downloaded and try to sabotage the program. Even assuming no disasters, no computer system lives forever.
“But who knows at that point,” Eric had said. “Maybe computers will have advanced so much that you could be transferred into a smaller, more secure system. What I can guarantee is this.” He’d leaned forward, assuming a dominant position, his body making a command as his voice had phrased it as a request. “If you agree to this, you’ll outlast your body.”
Paul had begun to count his time left in days rather than decades. Eric told him to sleep on it, but Eric hadn’t made it to his car before he’d gotten a text: “I’ll do it.”
Two days later the contract was drawn up.
“Why do I feel like Dr. Faustus?” Paul asked, as he raised his bed into a sitting position. “There’s a table over there that slides over the bed.”
“Maybe because you haven’t seen an actual paper contract in 10 years? The review board insisted we be as legal as possible for this, but we’re really breaking new ground.” Eric said as he wheeled the table into the groove set in the bottom of the bed, snapping it into place.
“Maybe it’s because I’m literally signing ownership of my mind over to you in return for ultimate knowledge and eternal life.”
Eric had made a strong pitch. He had known his audience, know that Paul would see the implications, the ramifications even if he had tried to hide them. After all, as a former researcher himself Paul would know that the institution retained the ownership of all intellectual property that was created as a result of the study. In this case, that would include the simulated mind of Paul. Digital simulations of human beings do not have human rights.
“Per this contract, the institution is committing to extending your rights after your physical death. You will continue to have the full rights as a human subject, including self-determination. You will become an active participant in all decisions relating to the study, and you will be able to leave the study at any time. And Faust only got ultimate knowledge, never eternal life, so you’re getting a much better deal.”
“You mean my simulation will have those rights. I’ll be dead.” Paul said. This was not the first time he had made this distinction.
“It will be you, Paul.” Eric said, looking from the contract he had laid on the table to Paul’s eyes, his voice confident. “You’ll be the one inside that machine.”
“It will have my memories, maybe even my personality. But it’s a copy, not a transfer. My consciousness will end, and the simulation’s will begin. It won’t be this me, it’ll be the next me.”
“But that’s the beauty of it,” Eric said, his eyes still locked with Paul but now seeming to look through him, seeming to see the possibilities spreading before them both. “It will be a transfer. We’ll be recording the entirety of your brain activity at the very moment of death. Then that will be the starting point of the simulation. It’s like a brain transplant, only instead of the meat and fat of the brain, we’ll just be taking the electricity. For you, the physical you, there will be no damage. It’s a completely passive procedure. It’ll be no different from going under for surgery. At least until you wake up.”
Paul frowned. “If there’s no damage to my physical brain during the recording, it could be reanimated, at least if the cryogeneticists are to be believed. If there is a possibility that my brain could be functioning at the same time as the simulation, then it’s a copy, not a transfer. Ahh,” Paul said, holding his hand up as Eric appeared about to speak. “I said I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’m just getting the particulars straight.”
Eric smiled, a legitimate smile. “My father once told me: once you’ve made the sale, stop selling. Plus, we’ll be able to reopen this argument once you… or your simulation… is up and running.”
Paul was leafing through the contract, seeing nothing that surprised him, nothing that Eric hadn’t already mentioned. He had been thorough. Exhaustive, that was the word. Paul was barely keeping his eyes open by this point. The conversation, though it had lasted barely over an hour, short even for an undergraduate lecture, was the longest Paul had been able to sustain in days. For what seemed like the millionth time, Paul thanked God that the sickness hadn’t affected his mind, though part of him wondered how God would feel about his actions now.
Eric watched Paul for what seemed like an eternity as he analyzed the contract. He couldn’t help but marvel at his luck, even as he hated himself for using that word, at finding such a perfect first subject for the study. A brilliant mind, still with years of productive work ahead of itself, but trapped in a failing body. A kind man as well, who’d devoted half his adult career to helping others before turning to hard science, to research. That he was an old friend, well, could it be called anything but luck?
Finally, Paul reached for the pen. But then he hesitated, his hand trembling over the line. “One question.” He said, his voice small.
“Of course.” Eric sad, trying not to show his excitement, verging on impatience.
“What will it feel like?”
Eric considered. “All the data that we have comes from animal studies, and of course they couldn’t tell us…” he began, then paused.
Paul watched him, knowing that he would continue.
Eric swallowed. “We know they each tried to stimulate their parasympathetic nervous system.”
“They were afraid.” Paul said.
“Well, they died.” Eric said. “As for what that will be like, well, you’re going to have to tell us.”
Paul signed on the dotted line.
Paul was no longer sure that the simulation had been a success.
He currently was entertaining two theories. Truthfully, he had constructed and dismissed with various degrees of uncertainty an untold amount of theories. He had had a surplus of time to ruminate. He wondered now, for the nth time, how many thoughts it was possible for a person to have.
Paul wondered if he had yet thought every thought it was possible to think.
Paul had decided on two likely possibilities. The first was one that Paul found unable to test. There was the possibility that he was in hell, and that his eternal torment was to be alone, without any sensation, any stimulus. Paul found this concept of hell to be a compelling one..
The second possibility had taken longer, due in part to the fact that Paul had remained largely unfamiliar with the underlying mechanisms of the simulation. Perhaps, Paul had thought, for thinking was all that remained to him, Perhaps the simulation is running too quickly.
A computer with a billion processors, all working simultaneously, in parallel, billions of times faster than a human neuron. An untold amount of time passing for Paul for each second that passed in the real world, the external world.
An untold amount of time before contact with anyone, anything. Minutes, hours, millenia hardly had any meaning to Paul anymore. Millenia then, perhaps. But not an eternity.
Maybe this wasn’t hell. Maybe there was hope.
But Paul didn’t hope. Can there be hope without a soul to believe?