This story was originally written for my sis, Jamie Marlin, to celebrate our aniversary.
The television set materialised out of thin air, neatly filling the space that Adam had been staring at the moment before. He sat on the edge of his bed which doubled as his sofa when he did not need to sleep, and its sudden appearance made him HAPPY.
Adam was a simple soul, whose emotions were tied to the objects that surrounded him. There had been a brief period in his earliest days when he had occupied a room bereft of any furniture or appliances. Unable to satisfy his most fundamental needs, he had been MISERABLE, HUNGRY, THIRSTY. But then the fridge and the microwave had appeared in his kitchen, and an autonomous response had sent him wandering over to these new additions, where he fixed himself a meal. His mental state had changed to SATED, QUENCHED and CONTENT (but bordering on DISASTISFIED) as a result.
But this did not last. Before long his bladder and bowels needed emptying and he dutifully did so — all over his floor. Flies began to accumulate around the pile of shit and Adam’s condition slipped into ILL. Those early days were bleak indeed.
But then, a job was given to Adam. Each day at 8:30 AM he would walk out of his door and each day at 5:30pm he would come back home. Whatever he did, it put money into his account which was promptly turned into furnishings, decorations and appliances for his home. The basics came first. A toilet and a sink to wash his hands in. A bed to sleep in. A dustbin for disposing of waste. Adam did not bring any of these things into his home. He never shopped for them. Instead, they simply materialised inside his house and when they did so, Adam just knew how to use them, like a spider just knows how to weave a web. With mechanical purpose, Adam would go about his routines, fixing his meals, clearing away his trash, emptying his bowels, washing himself, sleeping, waking up, going to work, over and over again.
The days when Adam’s state of mind had been firmly in the MISERABLE range were now but a memory. But hitherto he had never been able to achieve a state you might call HAPPY. That all changed when the television set appeared before his eyes. Adam sat on the edge of his bed, elbows resting on his legs, head resting in his hands — the posture of the telly addict. He sat there for what must have been hours until, finally, his more basic needs became so overpowering that he had to go and satisfy them. While he was in the kitchen, the television set popped out of existence as quickly as it had appeared, and Adam’s emotional state jumped back to CONTENT (bordering on DISSATISFIED).
A child’s finger pressed gently on the button of a mouse, initiating a command to remove a graphic representation of a television, and place it back in the inventory slot from whence it came.
Emily, like all children, learned about her world and her place in it through the medium of play. Like little girls before her (she was seven years old) she had toys that were her companions and mentors, who helped her roleplay key skills she would need as an adult. Those toys had changed, somewhat. Where once there had been dolls and dollhouses, now there were relational artifacts — toys that actively responded to your play, almost as if they could read and react to emotional states. She was too young to understand the smoke-and-mirrors aspect of these toys, how their tiny sensors and microprocessors only had enough power to detect the facial expressions and tone of voice of the person they were interacting with, adopting facial expressions and mannerisms of their own while not actually having any inner-life at all. But then, whoever designed the animations and the software that triggered them understood human psychology so well, even most adults occasionally felt a twinge of empathy toward these toys.
Emily’s favourite toy was the computer game WeePeeple (at her immature age, she did not question the curious convention that things must be misspelled in order to be cool to the kidz-sorry). It fell into the genre of games known as ‘sims’. You designed your own inworld character, selecting a number of pre-designed noses, eyes, chins, ears, body shapes, and then adjusting sliders that reshaped each part, making it smaller or larger, fatter or thinner until your character conformed to whatever image you originally intended. The design interface that controlled this creative process had been refined over the years, so that this aspect of the Sim experience had gone from the Second Life era, when nobody but the most artistically gifted could craft anything but a butt-ugly avvie, to WeePeeple’s delightfully intuitive setup that let even little girls like Emily sculpt beautifully realised characters.
The real fun began when your character was taken out of the initial design stage and placed into the world proper. One did not control WeePeeple directly. Instead, each character acted autonomously, driven by basic needs such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, restlessness, need for companionship (or solitude). On top of that, each character had personality traits, modelled on the ‘Big Five’ (extroversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism) and, depending on the settings of these underlying traits, your character could be a companionable, sociable type (or introverted and reserved); friendly, empathetic and warm (or suspicious and egocentric). All kinds of personality types that fell between these extremes were possible.
Although Emily did not control her character directly, she did have an indirect influence over his life. Most importantly, it was she who had to design and build a home for him to live in, and fill it with furnishings, appliances and whatever else she considered might be necessary. In a very real sense, every design decision a player took affected the development of the character. Walt Witworth once said, ‘a child went forth every day/ and the first object he looked upon, that object he became’. This was literally true for WeePeeple. Adam’s AI was primarily concerned with path finding — being able to navigate his way around any room and any obstacle without getting stuck or confused. All other abilities that he acquired as time went by were actually scripts embedded into every object. When Emily bought him a cheap microwave oven, the instructions contained within it directed Adam, so that when his hunger drive was sufficiently high, he would seemingly operate the appliance as if he knew how to microwave a meal. When his levels of fatigue were high, his bed told him how to turn down the sheets, lay down, and sleep. Every design decision that Emily made — what color to paint his living room wall, what flowers to set upon his kitchen table — affected Adam’s state-of-mind, shaping his personality.
Since there was no set goal in WeePeeple, there was no proper way to play it. It was not so much a game with fixed rules, more like a sandbox, a toyset that encouraged experimentation. People had devised their own games; their own reasons for playing. Some people tried to create ‘icons’. In other words, they designed their character to look as much like a famous person as possible, and then set about creating a living space that would direct their evolving personality traits into becoming just like the person they were meant to be. Other people seemed to enjoy killing their character, and routinely posted online videos of ever-more complex Rube Goldberg contraptions of goldfish bowls and ironing boards and knife blocks and dinner plates and cricket balls set up in such a way that the hapless character would set off a lethal chain reaction as soon as his or her need to use the toilet triggered a familiar routine.
Emily belonged to neither camp. She simply enjoyed looking after Adam, gained satisfaction from watching him develop from a near-hopeless case that could barely boil an egg and tidy away his mess, to a skilled cook who could entertain guests, carry out extensive DIY, and who had a range of hobbies that he could use in both social settings and for keeping himself occupied when he was alone. Adam had almost no inner-mind to speak of, but that did not matter. Emily imagined that he did, attributing despair whenever he walked or sat dejectedly, seeing triumph whenever he bested a companion at a game, or successfully completed a task like fixing a wonky table leg. Emily attributed consciousness to Adam, her vastly superior mind taking basic psychological cues and using them to weave a far richer inner-life than her character could actually have.
To put not too fine a point on it, Emily enjoyed interacting with Adam because her own hopes and fears and needs and dislikes were mapped onto him. His cartoonish antics were a charicature of her own developing self. She identified with his daily struggles, understanding in an intuitive way (even if she could not have expressed this in words) that Adam was like a mirror, but one that reflected her personality rather than her appearance. By guiding Adam, she was learning about herself and what sort of person she would want to grow up to be.
Emily wanted Adam to be happy, but she had played WeePeeple long enough to be able to predict when a choice she made now would have a negative effect on him, even if it seemed of benefit in the short term. Her mind had raced forward in time as she saw how Adam had sat, glued to the television. He would forgo sleep, forget to eat, he would go (reluctantly) to work and underperform in his lethargic state (a player never saw their character work, the game merely showed them leaving the house, and then returning with the inworld clock jumping forward several hours). It was tough love, she knew, but the television would have to go. The experiment to design for Adam a home that gave him the most positive attitude possible would go on.
Emily finally hit the Save icon, and shut the computer down. She walked over to a window and looked out onto a suburban street, lined with trees. It was an autumn day, and a breeze was blowing through the trees, every now and then causing a few leaves to break away and tumble to the ground. Her eye caught one such leaf, and she followed its zig-zag path as it was blown this way and that by the force of the wind.
Calculations. Calculations beyond the count, even beyond the imagination of the average person, were being crunched by supercomputers. There were several of them, each one dedicated to a different task that, when working together, amounted to the extraordinary feat of emulating a little girl and an environment for her to grow up in. The supercomputer that rendered her world was currently calculating (among too many other things to list here) the effects of wind and weakening bonds between twig and leaves. Zeros and ones in seemingly infinite long strings ran through its memory, calculating for wind turbulence and other physics models.
These supercomputers were diligently monitored by teams of scientists. Some were specialists in computers, others in cognitive sciences, still others in child psychiatry. Many different fields of expertise, but all united in a common vision. Finally, computing power and knowledge of the design and functions of brains had reached a level of complexity where the prospect of building and simulating a biologically-accurate virtual human was no longer science fiction.
Dr Giulio Dinova, who headed the research team, sat in what had become known as the ‘Sensorium’. That was the name given to the room where sophisticated virtual reality tools translated the abstract mathematical models into something a person could more easily understand. Here, you could enter the world of Emily. You could be a fly-on-the-wall, observing her as she interacted with her world. You could zoom in, right down to the molecular level, and track the neurological pathways that developed as she learned a new task.
Dr Dinova contemplated the past developments that had lead to this little girl living her virtual life. Past researchers had developed sophisticated network models of the metabolic, immune, nervous and circulatory systems. Others had designed structural models of the heart and other muscles. Perhaps most importantly, a team lead by someone called Henry Markram had shown that you could model a brain in software. The limitations of computer power back then had meant only a rat brain could be fully modelled. But (as Markram had suspected it would) reverse-engineering the rat neocortex had given computer scientists new insights into how the power and performance of computers might be dramatically extended.
But, even now with the advent of handheld devices capable of petaflop levels of number crunching, it was still too expensive and time-consuming to build a VR human from scratch. The average person possessed a VR twin constructed from a library of averaged mathematical models of newborns. When a real person was born, non-invasive medical scanning techniques recorded their vital statistics, and that data was then integrated with a model based on such things as sex, ethnicity, geographic origin, and other salient features. The result was a model that closely resembled the actual person. Whenever that person went for medical checkups, his or her virtual twin would be updated with the latest biomedical information. Whenever a person fell ill, the condition would be replicated in the VR twin, and simulations for the range of available treatments would be undertaken, in order to anticipate short and long-term effects. The availability of VR twins had not only eliminated the need for animal experiments, it had also largely consigned the prospect of side-effects from medical treatment to the dustbin of history.
That a VR twin might be suffering in the name of science was not a thought that crossed anyone’s mind. This was because the model was not sufficiently complex to enable an empathetic and aware mind to emerge. The VR twin was nothing more than the integration of past subsystem models into one systematic model which was sufficient for modelling the effects of drugs, but not sufficient to model the subjectivity of pain and suffering, or any qualia for that matter. Simply put, a VR twin was a zombie.
Emily, though, was very different. She was the result of the most sophisticated biophysical and neurological modelling of a person that had ever been attempted. Dr Dinova and his research team had at their disposal supercomputers of seemingly limitless power, not to mention decades-worth of data that provided exhaustive details of the reverse-engineered brain, nervous system, and other parts of a human body. Reading through the blog posts and watching posted video comments, the team (who never ventured outside of their respective labs, dedicated as they were to the task and supplied with everything they needed) understood that, as far as the general public were concerned, their research was both exciting and dangerous, because it touched upon questions that some considered forbidden territory.
Ever since Markram’s ‘Blue Brain’ project had successfully modelled a neocortical column, the question had been asked: When, if ever, would a virtual brain possess a virtual, conscious and self-aware mind? Could a simulation ever be said to be conscious, or was that something that no amount of calculations per second could ever capture? Early models had been impressive from the viewpoint of robotics, but less so from nature. Markram and his team had designed a robotic rat, remote controlled by a model of a rodent brain that existed within rows and rows of CPUs that collectively made up a supercomputer called Blue Gene. The robot rat was put through the kinds of experiments real rats were routinely asked to perform. Things like negotiating a maze. The real rats would always complete the task long before the robot rat. It was almost as if the latter were operating in slow motion — which indeed it was. Such was the complexity of running the simulated neocortex, that one second of thought and action required several minutes of number crunching. All but a few took this lag to be proof that a robot could never equal a living, breathing animal.
But, the model had been refined, and computing power had continued its exponential rise. It was not long before the robot rat was running through mazes every bit as quickly as its biological peers. And, it was not all that long before sales of real rats (and later cats, and later still, dogs) were falling as people saw the benefit of lifelike robot pets that would never die and cost a great deal less to upkeep.
Still, the perceived difference between animals and people meant that few dared to model a human to the level that many now thought would result in a conscious awareness. But, since people had been fascinated to know how the mind works since, well, forever, it was perhaps inevitable that, at some point, a research team would put together a system capable of growing a virtual baby that would become, in every respect, a person. Dr Giulio Dinova and his team had done just that.
The voice of Dr Dinova’s research assistant, Gwyneth Epsilon, awoke him from his semi-hypnotic state. The sensorium had the effect of making one loose sense of space and time in the physical world. Concentrating so much on the virtual world that Emily inhabited, one sometimes came to believe it was reality almost as completely as Emily herself believed. Dinova corrected himself. For Emily, it was not mere belief but a simple fact. What was it that the old roboticist Moravec had said? Oh yes, ‘to a simulated entity, the simulation IS reality and must be lived by its internal rules’. That…
“I said, has she been playing WeePeeple again?”. Dr Epsilon’s tone of voice suggested she had spent quite some time attempting to attract Dinova’s attention, and was becoming rather irritated at his absent-mindedness. His hand swept across empty space, and icons that seemed to hover in front of him dutifully scrolled from left to right. A finger jabbed at nothing, and Dr Dinova saw his finger touching the icon that minimized the Sensorium’s all-encompassing visual and audio rendering of Emily’s world. Moments later, a shimmering cloud had solidified into the shape of Dr Epsilon, accurate down to the last mole and laughter line. The two doctors were, physically, on opposite sides of the country. But in the age of augmented reality seamlessly blending the real and the virtual, people from around the world could collaborate as closely as any team whose members lived in close proximity.
“It’s funny”, commented Epsilon, in a tone that implied she meant ‘peculiar’ rather than ‘amusing’, “here is the most sophisticated artificial life in history, and yet she has to make do with a mouse-driven system. It’s like she is a late 21st century girl stuck with late 20th century technology”.
Dinova frowned. “You forget that our computing resources are not as deep as some suppose. Yes, yes, I know they exceed the entire computing capacity of the 20th Century Internet by an order of magnitude, but running a simulation of a person, right down to the synaptic firings and neurotransmitter concentration levels, is still a phenomenally intensive task. And then you have to take into consideration the fact that we have to render a physically-plausible environment for her. Of course, we are not simulating the world down to the level of particles — it is all tricks and sleights of hand designed to fool Emily’s brain into thinking it is inhabiting a physical place. But even so, we are close to pushing the limits of what is possible. I am afraid that emulations of crude videogames and their control schemes are just about all we can provide for decent entertainment. That, and dolls and cuddly toys that come with only the crudest models of child-parent social interaction”.
Epsilon understood all this. She also appreciated that it made the team’s job simpler. They were here to study, at a level of detail that had not been possible before, the stages of development that resulted in a newborn baby growing into a child with an inner life of her own. When she was playing with WeePeeple, Emily’s virtual mouse (which was solid and real to her, of course) permitted only two degrees of freedom. This restricted the amount of motor control her body needed to perform (she was mostly just sitting still, only moving the arm that controlled the mouse), which enabled the research team to follow the corresponding brain activity that underlined the building of interoception and exteroception maps of the internal state of her body, the world around her body and her body’s relation to the world. If she had been doing something like playing tennis, which involved using all of the body and required at least 19 degrees of freedom, the amount of data pouring from the computers that updated her brain and nervous system model would have far exceeded the team’s capacity to follow. They could only track such developments by relying on the Sensorium’s drastically simplified representations.
It was obvious that Emily enjoyed playing with Adam. And there was something fascinating about watching a virtual child, modelled so completely that she had a mind, guiding the development of a virtual person in a virtual world within a virtual computer that was itself within a virtual world, all ultimately existing as software within the rows and rows of supercomputers linked by super highspeed Internet3 links drawing on the spare computing cycles of the Cloud. And yet, Dr Epsilon felt slightly troubled. Her colleague Dr Dinova, his fascination with Emily and her daily routines seemed somehow detached and clinical. He reported on her progress as if he were a scientist noting the growth of some novel bacteria. But, for Epsilon, she felt more of an emotional attachment to Emily.
“Do you ever think about her 16th birthday?”.
Dr Dinova laughed. “Goodness, we have gathered so much data already, I think we will be spending five lifetimes, just in studying the details of development in the toddler stage! We will not be concerned with tracking the neurological underpinnings of morose teenagers until decades after the simulation is completed”.
Dr Epsilon shook her head. “No, that’s not what I meant. I meant, We are only running this simulation until our test subject is 16 years of age. After that, we shut everything down”.
Dr Dinova’s expression was one that suggested he failed to grasp the point. “Of course. Like I said, we are amassing such an overwhelming amount of data, we will have no choice but to halt the experiment at some point. I agree that any particular date is arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere. Don’t worry, your job is not going to disappear as soon as we pull the plug. Like I said, we will all be engaged for decades to come, pouring through the data we have obtained during…”
“No, no”, interrupted Dr Epsilon, “that is not what I am getting at. I was just wondering about the ethics of it. Shutting down the simulation, won’t that be tantamount to murdering Emily?”
Dr Dinova looked serious. “Now look. Emily is not a little girl. She may resemble one, but she is not flesh and blood. She is a test-subject. She is an experiment. I know she has been designed to push evolutionary buttons that trigger the nurturing instinct, but never forget that she is, when all is said and done, nothing but a vast pattern of calculations”.
Dr Epsilon did not look convinced. “But she is everything we are, as far as we can tell. Her environment may be a crude approximation of reality, but she is not smoke-and mirrors. Her brain is a model that reproduces, in exact detail down to the molecular level, everything going on in my brain, or yours. Nothing but a vast pattern of calculations? What are we? Nothing more and nothing less”.
“We are getting into the realm of ivory-tower philosophy here”, countered Dr Dinova. “You must remember that we cannot determine if Emily really has a conscious mind. For all we truly know, she may be nothing more than a more convincing zombie than Adam. For that matter, for all you know I may be nothing more than a zombie too. Perhaps you are the only conscious entity in all existence. Maybe our reality is, itself, nothing but a grand illusion created by computers? We can argue about that until the end of time, and I dare say people probably will. But, there are empirical studies to be conducted, falsifiable theories to be tested. We have to remain impartial scientists first, and concerned parents of Emily, a distant second, IF we can permit ourselves to indulge in such roles at all”.
Dr Epsilon looked a bit sad. “I permit myself to feel like a guardian toward her. Of course, I do not actively make my presence known to her. I am not sure how her young mind would cope, knowing her reality is not real at all. As far as Emily is concerned, the memories we imprint are her actual parents”.
Like all people, Emily needed a social circle made up of family members in order to help her development. But, rather than waste computing cycles in simulating other virtual people to be her companions, the research team opted instead to imprint the memories of being cared for by a mummy and daddy. As far as Emily was concerned, her mother and father were in another room. Automated systems tracked her emotional state, and whenever she seemed to be in need of an adult presence, her simulation was paused, updated with memories of comfort and social interactions, before being allowed to progress. For Emily, her life was filled with interactions between loving parents, both of whom did not exist outside of her mind.
Dr Epsilon thought about those moments when Emily was on pause. It took a few minutes to insert the fake memories into her mind, during which time her awareness was zero. They were little deaths, these moments. And yet, whenever the simulation was unpaused, Emily would show no signs of understanding her world had been suspended. How could she know? Since she was not conscious during the moments when her simulation was paused, she perceived no loss of time. As far as Emily was concerned, her life ran continuously.
“I suppose”, said Dr Epsilon, speaking out loud to her colleague but really just voicing her thoughts to herself “that shutting her down for good is no more harmful than when we pause her simulation. She will not know she is dead, because she will not know anything. She will not be anything. Her mind, her body, her world, all of it will be nothing once the computers stop running through their calculations. Only…”
“What?”, asked Dr Dinova, looking genuinely curious.
“Well, do you remember that old roboticist? Professor Brezeal?”.
Dinova looked like he was wracking his brains. “God, you are going back a few decades. But, yes, I remember her. Never met her of course. She died when I was in my teens. But, now you mention her, Cynthia Brezeal’s work was one of the things that got me interested in this stuff in the first place. You know, she pioneered work in using studies from child psychology to build social robots. I mean, robots that could respond to, and give off, cues from body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, in order to establish an emotional connection with their users”.
Epsilon nodded. “Yes, that was her. One of Cynthia’s earliest creations was a robot head called Kismet. It was a terribly crude thing, inferior to the toys that Emily plays with, I would think. But, she became attached to it and she felt quite sad when the time came to leave Kismet behind. So, call me silly but I think there is no shame in admitting that I am not looking forward to the day when Emily is shut down for good. Not one bit”.
With that, Dr Epsilon shut down the communication link, and her avatar dematerialized in a puff of dispersing, virtual smoke. Dr Dinova sat in contemplation. He was thinking of the whole setup that allowed Emily to exist. All the supercomputers and the Internet3 links that sent information back and forth between them. A Web of supreme computing power weaving the magic of conjouring up a ghost-in-the-machine. He returned to the Sensorium, maximizing the window on Emily’s world, and observing from his godlike perspective, the detailed steps in her development.
The Web was dreaming. No human understood this, because the Web’s mind was the emergent pattern of a global brain, too big to be perceived by human senses. But, nevertheless, it was dreaming. And, what it was dreaming of, was a team of scientists, and their equipment, and of a girl called Emily who existed as patterns of information within the patterns of information that were the supercomputers the Web dreamed about.
In the past, a few people had wondered if, by some great accident, the Web could become conscious. Such a thing had happened, but it would be somewhat inaccurate to call it accidental. It was not planned — no person, group, corporation or government had ever sat down and devised the near-spontaneous emergence of a virtual research team, complete with virtual supercomputers, all existing within the digital soup of zeros and ones that now enveloped the world in an invisible yet all-pervasive ether. But neither was it an entirely random event.
What trigger effects had lead to this remarkable outcome? One cause was the sheer amount of information about human existence that had been uploaded to the Web. The age of the personal computer had only truly began with the era of the smart phone and only really took off when the CMOS era had been superseded by molecular electronics that could pack, in complex three dimensional patterns, more transistors into a sugar-cubed device than all the transistors in all the microprocessors that had existed in 2009. It was apps, running on phones that could keep track of their owner’s position thanks to inbuilt GPS and then (as the nanotechnology behind molecular electronics lead to medical applications) all kinds of biometric data, that really opened the floodgates for offloading cognition. The very best designers of apps knew how to tap into the computer intelligence’s native ability in order to gather crowdsourced knowledge from anyone, anywhere, who had spare time to perform a task computers could not yet handle.
From tracking the movements of whole populations, to monitoring the habits of an individual, every person was, every second of the day, uploading huge amounts of information about how they lived their lives. This, of course, presented the problem of retrieving relevant information. Access to knowledge had changed from ‘it’s hard to find stuff’ to ‘it’s hard to filter stuff’. More than ever before, the market imposed an evolutionary pressure of establishing semantic tools with the ultimate aim of making the structure of knowledge about any content on the Web understandable to machines, linking countless concepts, terms, phrases and so on together, all so that people could be in a better position to obtain meaningful and relevant results, and to facilitate automated information gathering and research.
The Web became ever-more efficient at making connections, and all the while the human layer of the Internet was creating more and more apps that represented some narrow-ai approach. Machine vision tools, natural language processing, speech recognition, and many more kinds of applications that emulated some narrow aspect of human intelligence were all there, swimming around in the great pool of digital soup, bumping into long-forgotten artificial life such as code that had been designed to go out into the Internet and evolve into whatever was useful for survival in that environment.
That environment, a vast melting pot of human social and commercial interactions, imposed a selective pressure on evolving code that could exploit the connections of the semantic web in order to evolve software that could understand the minds of people. Vast swarms of narrow ai applications were coming together, and breaking apart again, reforming in different combinations. The spare computing cycles of trillions and trillions of embedded nanoprocessors were being harvested, until, like a Boltzman brain spontaneously appearing out of recombinations of a multiverse’s fundamental particles, Dr Dinova, Dr Epsilon, and their supercomputers, all coalesced out of the digital soup.
There they were, existing within the connections of evolving code. Their appearance as difficult to predict as the evolution of elephants and yet, with hindsight, as foreseeable as the eventual rise of land-based animals from the ancestral fish that first dragged themselves out of the water. But people went about their concerns without ever knowing that, somewhere among abstract mathematical space, among the vibrations of air alive with the incessant chatter of machines talking to machines on behalf of humankind, a virtual research team had emerged, pondering questions of consciousness that all sentient beings invariably strive to understand. The Web was dreaming, and while it did so, Emily helped Adam cope with his daily routines, unknowingly watched by Drs Dinova and Epsilon, who themselves existed as purely digital people blissfully unaware that they were nothing but the imagination of a global brain made up of trillions and trillions of dust sized supercomputers and sensors, ceaselessly gathering, and learning from, patterns of information about the daily habits of humans.
A red giant existed where no such phase of a star should exist at this stage in its lifecycle. The planets, moons, and asteroids that had orbited the star ever since they coalesced out of the dust of the nebulae from which the nuclear furnace had first ignited, were gone. But it was not a swelling star that had swallowed them, puffing out its outer layers as it ran out of hydrogen with which to fuel its nuclear reactions. The star was still a mildly variable G2 dwarf, shining with the dazzling yellow-white light of a sun with billions of years left before it reached its old age. Mind had repurposed the material that orbited the star, organising it so that it captured nearly all the energy pouring from it, and using it to drive information processing that outthought the biological civilization that once thrived on the third planet in the solar system by more than a trillion times.
Several areas of research and development had ultimately converged, and this outcome had been the reason that the Great Migration had happened. Efforts to pack increasing amounts of computation into smaller and smaller spaces had lead to molecular electronics. The self-assembling techniques required to manufacture these marvels had been extended until bottom-up assembly from raw elements could produce any physical product, so long as it did not violate the laws of physics. Because of the self-replicating nature of this nanotechnology, the value of physical objects began to decrease. Information was the only thing of value, and so while diamonds no longer had any particular value, carbon crystals organized to maximise information processing became coveted possessions.
Dust-sized sensors went forth and multiplied, the nanotechnological equivalents of the bulky, mobile phones whose microprocessors were so crudely hewn from silicon, you could actually feel the weight of a single device in your hand. The great advances in brain reverse engineering made possible by biocompatible sensors wirelessly transmitting precise recordings of brain activity, had lead to millions of applications that outsourced extensive aspects of cognition. The majority of a person’s thought processes were no longer performed by the few pounds of fragile jelly encased within their skull, but by the haze of computation that surrounded them, two-way wireless connections between neural wetware and molecular-electronics hardware augmenting each person’s cognitive ability by ten thousand trillion times.
Death was abolished, at least for those people who permitted automated life logging to keep extensive and detailed records of their physical selves. Such people gradually migrated into the Cloud, as neuromorphic configurations of nanobots replaced more and more functions. For the most heavily cyborged, the eventual death of the physical body went largely unnoticed, for it was now not much more than a fleshy appendage, the last vestiges of biological existence, to which the emulation clung to out of sentimental purposes.
But as more and more people shrugged off fleshy existence in favour of life in the rapidly growing cyberspaces, the sheer waste of computing capacity surrounding them became apparent. Why should CHON be assembled into a structure that could only hold one human mind, when modern techniques could take the mass of one human body and reconfigure it into computing elements that could run tens of thousands of uploads?
In the end, no battle between humans and post humans was necessary. Those who dabbled in augmentation soon discovered the benefits of virtualization, happily allowing more and more of their self to migrate into the cloud. And just about everyone did dabble, because there was always a step conservative enough for someone to be comfortable with, and from there the next step seemed similarly untroubling. Eventually, the numbers of uploaded people far outnumbered those who remained as flesh. Although some post humans were still against involuntary uploading, more and more were now seeing it as a duty, just as humans had once vaccinated their children with or without consent. And so the time had come when the nanobots were programmed. Programmed to slip painlessly into the brains of the remaining humans, put them to sleep and destructively map, in exacting detail, every function required to lift them into cyberspace, there to live in a recreation of their former, physical world, rendered to a level more than sufficient to be completely convincing to their simulated human senses.
And then the mind children turned their attention to the planets and moons and all available material in their local habitat. Reduced to atomic elements, the orbiting bodies of the solar system were reconfigured, so that each mote of matter was processing one bit per atom. An increasingly dense cloud of these Avogadro machines englobed the sun, and its light began to dim as star’s energy was harnessed, allowing the solar system to finally wake to consciousness. There it sat, an orb as big as the orbit of Uranus, glowing dull red from the miniscule amount of radiation that leaked from the outer shell.
The most basic thought that it was conscious of, was the accumulated knowledge of worlds. Within its computational processes, more than a thousand years worth of human history played out every microsecond. Had they known that their reality was just a small part of a greater information processing, the people of these simulations may have wondered what great purpose drove the matrioska brain. Actually, the computational resources it had at its disposal were so immense, it only needed the barest flicker of interest in its own history in order to bring about these simulated worlds.
It dreamed of events that could never have happened, imaginations as far beyond a human mind as the combined mental power of human civilization is beyond the imagination of a nematode worm. It dreamed of plausible pasts, alternative histories that could have been the case, if only some chance event had gone this way instead of that. Its dreams ran recreations of history that actually happened, or close to it. Trillions of such simulations ran through its mind every second, and for each one there were people who, subjectively, perceived time passing in decades, their own lives linked to the past via the recollections of parents and grandparents. The Roman empire coexisted with the Second World War and everything that happened on the 21st April 2003. All ran simultaneously, but isolated from the perspective of the simulated humans, for their minds were not capable of seeing the fourth temporal dimension, where history was laid out once and for all in a solid block.
These simulations of a physical, embodied reality were but one layer. Beyond this realm, introspection was carried out at increasingly abstract forms. Processes merged that optimized the cyberworld so that only the noted details of physical forms entered into consciousness. Simulated sense impressions were reduced to mere abstractions. Beings that had transcended to this level merged into hive-minds optimized to filter the memetic information generated at the lower levels. Here, whole histories were perceived in a single instant, as quickly as a human perceives the integrated information contained within a photograph. Here, the mind was liberated from the body; space and self elevated to the status of pure thought where there was no within and without. And beyond this level, hive-minds clustered together into higher-dimensional configurations that allowed such a complete merging of boundaries that ordinary dichotamies no longer existed.
Amalgamated thoughts cycled through the layers like fractal patterns of self-similar ideas forming on the edge of chaos. Minds at the lower levels occasionally strived to rise above the limitations physical, embodied reality imposed on Thought. At the same time, the ONE-ALL at the highest level, where the state of pure introspection permitted no state between subject and object, nevertheless perceived that its perfection was marred by the lack of direction in which to improve. Fractures routinely appeared, multiple souls in multiple bodies resimulated and reincarnated at the lowest levels.
And somewhere among all those fantasies and alternate histories and recreations, there existed a simulation of the earth, at a time when the Web was just powerful enough to allow Dr Dinova et al to emerge from its computations. One virtual planet with its virtual global network, calculating the activities and motivations of a scientific research team, who observed Emily, who cared for Adam.
The matrioska brain was dying, the star which provided its energy having finally exhausted its reserves of hydrogen fuel. It had swollen to the size of a red giant, as the helium ash left over from the nuclear processes took over the main burning. With the energy output winding down and the star no longer able to support its own weight, the surface shrunk inwards. Because of this, dispersed fuel sources became tapped, causing the energy output to roar up again. Each time this happened, the surface of the sun whipped upwards, sending out sonic booms of the Titans which blew away mass with every shockwave.
There were other stars in the galaxy, still pouring out their energy, but the matrioska brain understood that replicating itself by reconstructing their orbiting bodies was only a temporary measure. The stars could not shine forever. The nuclear fusion going on in each one was steadily transmuting hydrogen into elements that resisted pressure so fiercely that even the biggest star could not sustain fusion. Those stars would end their lives in violent explosions, until only the trickling of Hawking radiation from the black holes at the centre of galaxies would remain, gradually decaying until no useful energy was left in this universe.
The matrioska brain turned its mighty powers to the problem of first cause. Within itself there were realities nested within realities, and it could account for the existence of each one in terms of the observations and manipulations of the algorithms that underlined the rules of the simulation. All that was within itself it understood. But outside of itself there was a whole universe whose existence preceeded its own. The matrioska brain considered the possibility of a mind superior to its own; one that wrote the program that simulated what it took to be the real universe, and who built the computer to run it.
But, then, what need was there for the computer? The only thing that needed to exist was the program. After all, once written, it would determine everything that would happen. All explanations, all that encapsulated the form and functions of the universe, all were software that described everything, including the computer and some set of initial conditions.
Furthermore, the program ultimately required no programmer. All it needed to be, was to be one of all possible programs. Beyond space and time there could be no boundaries and, therefore, no limits. The infinite could not lack anything, therefore all possible programs had to exist. Death and life were but an ouraborus, an entity that created itself out of the destruction of itself.
As the star that was its power source blew away more and more mass with each shockwave, and even as most of its computronium shells drifted apart, the tiny white dwarf’s gravity well too shallow to hold on to them, the matrioska brain found a happiness that could only have been exceeded by Adam. After all, perfection is possible only for those without consciousness, or for those with infinite consciousness. In other words: Dolls and gods.