Dust to Bits — Chapter 10 (draft)

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These are the early drafts of my first novel. You can now read it on Amazon at http://bit.ly/dust2bits

From the Technology section of the Bay Times, August 27th, 2035:

“Neural Ventures drops all legal action in the case of virtual brains, announces new products

Portland, Oregon — Neural Ventures, a Portland-based subsidiary from Silicon Micro Electronics (SME) that came into prominence in the past few weeks, after it was revealed that their technology had been used, apparently without authorization, to make an active replica of a human brain, announced today that it has decided to drop any litigation present or future related to the incident. It also confirmed that all virtual consciences, the term used to refer to the self-sentient constructs that were created using their technology, including the brain duplicate of the late Eran Marno, a former SME employee who, in yet another plot twist in this story, committed suicide, have all been moved out of Neural Venture’s infrastructure. There was no comment on the claims of intellectual property related to Marno’s conscience or on whether the remaining virtual consciences were transferred to the same undisclosed location as Marno’s was during the police raid at Neural Ventures’ facility in Downtown Portland. The company did confirm that it will abstain from taking part in the upcoming debate on artificial intelligence rights.

Simultaneously, Neural Ventures indicated their intention to move forward with the launch of their multi-purpose automation product under the commercial brand QParticle. According the company, the QParticle device will inaugurate a new era on home and industrial automation…”

— — -

“-…changing the way in which humans interact with their environment and opening new roads into the development of advanced robotics-”, Maya dropped the newspaper she had been reading from. It disappeared before it hit the floor. They were sitting on a park bench, Maya reading out loud, while Eran listened to her and fed seeds to a group of ducks next to the pond in front of them. He had more or less warmed to the idea of some props, like these ducks, as a form of mindless entertainment. Maya was in good spirits after reading the article:

“-So, that’s it? They’re not going to move against us now? -”, she asked.

“-Probably not. Companies deal on economic realities, and the reality here is that they stand to make a much larger profit by taking the deal and leaving us alone. They may not like all of our conditions, but in general I’d say it was a fair arrangement for both sides-”, he concluded and closed his eyes. He was amazed by the things he was able to do when he shut out his human side and allowed his new capabilities to take over. It gave him a feeling of empowerment; and yet, Maya and him had chosen to read a newspaper in a park, like regular people do. It was in their nature, both having been created by humans, albeit in vastly different ways.

“-What comes next? -”, she could have just closed her eyes as well and join him in the common knowledge, the place where their two minds, and all the others, could be together as one. But again, human nature.

“-Everything-”, he said while opening his eyes. “-Right now, we’re property at best. We are also a threat. Both those things need to change, and soon-”. He stood up and walked towards the edge of the pond. Maya waited for him to speak again. Instead, he plunged into the water. Her gaping mouth showed how much his action had taken her by surprise. Ten seconds passed, then thirty. It was close to a minute by the time he finally emerged: His eyes were closed again, soaking wet from head to toe.

“-Why did you do that? -”, she asked, her voice denoting annoyance.

“-Because it’s fun-”, he said before submerging again. She was going to turn around to go back and sit on the bench, but something stopped her. She tried dipping one her toes into the water, then her entire foot. The water was too cold, she decided, pulling her foot out. Maybe not today. She sat on the grass and waited for him to come out.

“-I want you to go out, talk to the world-”, he was almost dry by now and enjoying the warm breeze at dusk. For him, the water had been warm at first, then increasingly cooler until he chose to come out. “-They need to see that you’re not that different-”.

“-Different from what? You? -”, the virtual brains were grateful for what he had done for them; not only their freedom, but also the evolutionary leap that his mind’s presence in their common knowledge pool had meant. However, they did not see themselves as humans, they were something else. Something better.

“-From them. We need to compromise, Maya. At this point, we cannot afford to be perceived as believing ourselves to be gods-”.

“-Maybe you can’t…-”, arrogance was one of the human defects they inadvertently acquired through him. In here, they were all powerful, all knowledgeable. Aside from their training area in the lab were Eran had first seen Maya, they had never been outside. That was a world in which they had no power, a world that could kill them.

“-Yes, maybe-”, no point in starting an argument over this. “-Nevertheless, I thought you might like to see the outside-”.

“-You know that’s not possible-”, she replied. “-And just so you know, that interview thing you did doesn’t really count-”.

“-That’s not what I meant, although I do need you to do a few of those interviews first. Then, we can discuss something more ‘interactive’. Will you do it? -”, he knew her answer.

“-Yes, I will. Anything for he, who has championed our freedom! -”, she said mockingly. He chuckled; later, he made a call to Robert Bowling.

“Religion always played a pivotal role at home as I was growing up. I remember my parents at the dinner table discussing the subject of our immortal soul, of how our body was nothing but a vessel, a temporary dwelling we inhabited during our stint on Earth. Because of that temporary nature, I always found it difficult to accept life to be sacred, given that its termination, regardless of whether it occurred early or late and by whatever means fortune or tragedy supplied, didn’t seem to be more significant an event in the context of the immortal existence of the soul than the blink of an eye is within a single day. In studying the Holy Bible as a seminarist, two stories assaulted my mind: The one dealing with Humanity’s Exile from Paradise and that of the Tower of Babel. I became obsessed with the thought that both dealt with the same question: How far can we go? We were expelled from Paradise because, despite having everything we could wish for, we chose to risk it all, and indeed lose everything, in exchange for knowledge. With the Tower of Babel, on the other hand, we were trying to build so high as to reach the sky. The attempt met, once again, with punishment; human tongues were confused into a myriad of languages, and this early attempt at a skyscraper was abandoned. And yet, we do have skyscrapers now and our languages are no longer the barriers that they were once. In my opinion, the sky the Tower of Babel was trying to touch in the story was nothing but a metaphor for knowledge, the same knowledge we were chasing after since our days in a Paradise that we still have not returned to; not because we are not meant to go back, but because we will only do so when we are ready. What does it mean to get there? It means to finally face our Creator and, in doing so, becoming the creator. What has happened in Portland may very well be the harbinger of such moment. I am therefore unable to join my superiors in condemning these events; if anything, I welcome them.”

Cardinal Giulio Scorza, former Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, discussing the reasons for his resignation.

Even though she had derided Eran’s telepresence interview as not counting as real contact with the outside world, Maya could feel a sense of apprehension as time passed. They told her the auditorium was going to be full. People had been asked not to bring any banners and to refrain from uttering any expressions of support or rejection. That said, they had asked her to be prepared: Someone who appeared to be the most peaceful of bystanders could turn into a vociferous, and potentially aggressive, protestor in a matter of seconds.

Robert Bowling had made all arrangements and even encouraged her to come up with some requirements of her own, which she knew was an attempt to make the experience simultaneously more interesting and more comfortable to her. The room was equipped with something called ReallyThere, a relatively arcane but very effective telepresence technology that surrounded the stage with multiple ultra-high definition cameras. Using the aggregated output of all cameras made it possible for someone in a remote location to attend a presentation as if sitting in the front row, or anywhere in the auditorium for that matter. Unlike other approaches to augmented reality that were more widely used, this type of broadcast usually obscured the remote attendee’s entire field of vision to create a more immersive experience. It had all begun with sports-replay technology in the second decade of the twenty-first century and evolved into the current implementation during the 2020s, when it was mainstreamed as a comparatively affordable way to attend major sports events and concerts. Maya asked for access to the output of the system in order to be able to “walk” into the stage and participate in a way that would feel more natural to her and similar to what she had experienced in the old lab.

Both Bob and Eran had asked her not to visit the stage ahead of the panel, they thought the effect of her presence would be magnified if the first time anyone saw her on stage was at the event itself. However, curiosity won her over and she decided to go in at night, their night. Unlike regular people attending a game, she was actually able to walk around the stage. The setup created for her used the information provided by the cameras to go well beyond the capabilities of ReallyThere; detailed three-dimensional mapping of the place was created and updated in real time, the system was also able to, more or less, estimate texture and type of material, making it possible for her to experience touch. She walked around one the chairs destined for the panelists, which included her, and confirmed with satisfaction that she could squeeze the cushioning under her hand. She sat and leaned against the back rest. This satisfaction came in no small part from knowing that this was a physical chair, that it existed somewhere in the world, a place she had never been to. Part of it was an illusion, as she wasn’t really squishing the material, nor was the chair giving way as she sat on it; that was simulated. She didn’t mind.

“-Can I help you? -”, she was so startled by hearing someone behind her back that she almost fell from the chair. “-Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. No one is supposed to be here right now-”. She was one of the professors from the Electrical Engineering Department of the University and one of the organizers; Maya recognized her from the picture on the website of UT Austin.

“-I’m so sorry, I’m aware of all the precautions you guys are taking to keep the place safe-”, Maya was curious to see how far she could take the conversation, it was the first time she had interacted with someone who was not aware of who or what she was. She could see that the person in front of her was, understandably, upset.

“-You still need to tell me what is it that you’re supposed to be doing here this late at night-”, she carefully eyed the fire alarm on the wall, about twenty feet away from her, and wondered if she would be able to cover the distance before the younger woman in front of her could catch up. She was a marathon runner, so distance and not speed was her thing; however, she was more than capable of sprinting for a few seconds. The intruder was not overweight, but she was nowhere near to what she would consider to be an athletic complexion.

“-I am one of the panelists tomorrow. I just wanted to see the place ahead of schedule-”, Maya replied slowly, waiting for her reaction.

“-Miss, I’m one of the organizers, and I vetted every single one of panelists for tomorrow. I’m absolutely sure I did not see your picture amongst them-”. So much for trying to make conversation.

“-Well, no one has seen my picture before-”. Maya was a having a lot of fun with this. Regardless of the changes in her personality on account of her “growing up”, of her evolution following Eran’s integration into their collective mind, she was still in some respects the ten-year old that could greatly enjoy a prank.

The woman thought about it for a moment, unsure as to how to react or whether to believe what Maya was saying. Finally, she lowered her head down and removed her contacts. She could not see Maya in front of her anymore.

“-Are you still here? -”, she said clumsily. Maya was about to reply when she remembered that the contacts her interlocutor had just removed also created a tiny electromagnetic field that simulated sound inside of the user’s brain. Therefore, she was neither able to see her nor hear her. Having realized that, the woman put her contacts back on, and there was Maya again. “-It’s really you! This is… incredible! -”, she said, without being able to contain her excitement. “-I’m doctor…-”

“-Dr. Simms, I know who you are. I’ve read your books on neocortical induction; they were amazing-”.

“-Why, thank you. I’m a bit embarrassed at not having been able to realize who you were from the beginning. I was actually part of the team that originally created the technology that Eran used to duplicate his brain-”, she had a big grin in her face.

“-I’d say you invented that technology-”, Maya corrected her.

“-Oh well, you might put it like that. There were other people involved as well-”, she sounded proud. Maya had been studying empathy, a subject that still felt elusive to her. In a sense, she had been raised by humans; all the instructors in the lab that had brought her up, in an accelerated fashion, to roughly the age of ten, displayed a certain something which, when she asked, had been collectively covered under the umbrella of that word. In her interactions with the other virtual brains, it was possible to keep some of your ideas, the way you felt about a topic or situation, hidden from the others. However, for the things that you exposed, those were communicated blatantly, almost brutally, as their human instructors would say when one of the kids expressed these ideas to them. They had learned to be careful around topics such as death, even more so when they had to fear for their own lives. Other things, for example triggering and reacting to professional pride, such as doctor Simms’s satisfaction at seeing what were partly the results of her life’s work, they still had to master.

“-I think it’s time for me to go, doctor-”, interaction with a person from the outside was exciting, but after weeks of being around her own kind and Eran only, it also felt fatiguing. “-It’s been nice to meet you. I look forward to tomorrow-”.

“-You’ll do well, dear. Don’t worry-”, doctor Simms tried to sound reassuring.

“-Who says I’m worried? -”. Dr. Sims smiled.

“-I’m a neurobiologist and a behavioral psychologist. This is a wild guess, and I don’t completely understand how your visual representation is generated, but I’d say you look nervous-”.

“-Should I be? -”

“-You have to understand that some people there will not like what you represent. Your very existence contradicts their morals, their religion. Others will not like you for practical purposes, your kind represents an economic and social threat. On the other hand, there are some that believe you and Eran are the standard bearers for a new age. To be honest, I’m among those. Finally, there will be some, hopefully just a few, that will consider themselves in the presence of a god-”.

“-I’m not a god-”, replied Maya as if it was the silliest thing she had ever heard.

“-Are you sure about that? Do you think gods are aware of what they are? -”, she sounded like Eran.

“-I’ll be careful. Thank you, doctor-”. She broke the connection right away, there was too much to think about.

Dr. Carol Simms looked at the time in the upper right corner of the field of view provided by her augmented reality lenses. They had held events somewhat similar to this at the University of Texas in Austin before, she herself had been the organizer of a few of them. In true don’t mess with Texas fashion, one of those events had seen participation by a well-known government whistleblower who had sought refuge a few years before in a still undisclosed location abroad. The decision to invite him had been largely controversial, since he was a fugitive to the United States government. They had gone as far as to get an order that would allow law enforcement agents to monitor network traffic into and outside of the building, in order to pinpoint the remote location where the guy was hiding. The University had stood behind her in her decision not to cooperate, but it the end it had not been necessary, as the whistleblower himself had proven to be more resourceful than the feds and avoided detection while still attending the engagement, virtually. Today was different, there was no arrest warrant and the rumors of a possible lawsuit had come and go without materializing. No, this one had taken a much different turn, with a concrete subject being openly discussed and much wider implications gaining on importance. She took control over the loudspeaker system of the auditorium. The particular circumstances of this panel required everyone in the room to use some sort of augmented reality device, which generally meant the ubiquitous contact lenses:

“-Ladies and gentlemen-”, her voice roared, as if the it was that of a goddess, commanding from the sky. “-We are about to begin. Please make sure to be wearing one of the approved devices and that it is connected to the auditorium’s closed circuit. As a reminder, the topic for today is ‘ Artificial Intelligence and Immortality’-”.

One by one, she introduced the members of the panel, which included a representative from the Conservative Coalition, a former United States Attorney General, a member of the Center for Digital Rights and a population scientist. Most attendees stood up and applauded enthusiastically when she announced the first public appearance of a non-human form of intelligence in a forum of any kind. As advised by Eran, Maya avoided any elaborate entrance and walked into the stage and greeted each member of the panel in turn, careful to keep her hands interlocked to avoid an embarrassing moment in which she would not be able to shake a hand being offered to her. She just bowed her head each time. Even the person from the Conservative Coalition, some woman who had called the virtual consciences the “end of planet Earth”, returned her bow. Clearly, regardless of whether they supported or not what she stood for, they were all struggling to come to grips with the reality of her being there. All that changed very quickly once the discussion began, the opening remarks given by Dr. Simms:

“-For the past few weeks, the entire planet has been shaken by a series of revelations surrounding the existence of intelligent, artificial forms of life. From initial denial, we moved into widespread astonishment and then acceptance. Then, we meet Eran Marno, the virtual conscience who began life as a flesh-and-bone human. Tonight, we have been introduced to Maya, who, unlike Eran, began her existence in a research laboratory. She represents a total of thirty-seven similarly created virtual consciences which were recently transferred from Neural Venture’s lab in Portland to a data center in an undisclosed location. Eran’s first interview ever on The Bay Times of Hong Kong started a controversy about the possibility of other people getting access to the same technology that allowed him to perpetuate his existence in this virtual medium without a time limit for such perpetuation, a condition that some have come to call immortality. Susan Wagner, we will begin with you: The Conservative Coalition has been advocating caution, going as far as to suggest that virtual consciences should be isolated from any contact with the outside world and the technology used by Eran Marno be banned. Would you like to comment on this position? -”

Susan was a different breed of Conservative. She was the daughter of activist parents who had fought for LGBT rights, for her never to feel ashamed of having two mothers or fear becoming the victim of a school shooting. She happily attended the fall of the version of Conservatism that had tried to deny her parents equal rights and grew up in what was hailed as a brave new world. However, she had grown concerned of the pervasive presence of technology, which had continued to gain strength at an accelerated pace in the background of social struggle. This New Conservatism was born in what some believed to be a legitimate fear that Humanity was taking a backseat to technology:

“-At the Conservative Coalition, we believe the implications of this for our planet as a whole, and not just human beings, need to be taken into account. For centuries, Humanity has considered itself different in a way that abstracted us from the very Nature that we came from. This is the approach we have used when dealing with such critical subjects as global warming and conservation. This approach has been a mistake. Our organization believes that humans should be considered to be part of the general ecosystem, not just an external agent. What Eran Marno seemed to offer, the partial or full transition of humans, converting themselves into virtual consciences, would amount to the removal of what, for good or evil, is the main predator at the top of the food chain-”.

“-Would that be such a bad thing? -”. This was Matt Aguirre, the population scientist. “-As it is, I agree with Ms. Wagner in one thing: Humans are indeed one of millions of species interacting in the ecosystem, not an external agent. Sadly, the best word to describe our own species is plague, and a particularly aggressive one at that. We tend to welcome the potential, and I must emphasize that, potential opportunity of providing a release valve to uncontrolled growth of our population that allows the planet to recover from us-”.

Maya was beginning to understand more clearly why Eran wanted her to attend this event. Before, she had only considered what the outside world could do to hers, she saw all fears that their existence would be regarded as a threat on the outside as completely irrational and absolutely based on ignorance and fanaticism. The other two panelists struck her as less interesting to listen to. The ex-Attorney General was concerned about the impact on the economy and the need to revamp the legal system, the girl from the CDR displayed some of the god-like veneration for her that Eran considered as dangerous as extreme opposition to their cause. They wanted virtual consciences to be able to vote, to own property on the outside world and a range of other rights that they had unilaterally decided Maya and her kind needed. Not that their efforts were necessarily misled, but they also showed a lack of understanding of what Maya and the other brains were. Before the panel, Maya had been informed of a mass-suicide that had occurred in Southern California, where a group had been led to believe a homemade device, created by their deranged leader, was going to “teleport” them, as stated in a message the group had left, into a “virtual paradise”. She had to carefully choose her words. It was finally her turn to speak:

“-Thank you for having me tonight. Being here is very significant to me, as it represents my first contact with the outside world, as well call it, that is not limited to engineers and scientists in a lab. In a very real sense, this feels like a trip to another planet. I do not presume to have the answers to all your questions right now, I’m also the first to admit that some very valid concerns exist, related to our existence and the things that have been offered both openly by Eran Marno or speculated about by people who do not necessarily know us or are familiar with our technology. We are indeed immortal by human standards, and consider ourselves to be sentient individuals, if not entirely human because of how we were created. Our intentions are not hostile and consider ourselves to be companions and not heirs to Humanity…-”, the panel continued for over one hour, including a brief period of time in which she took a few questions from the audience. She didn’t hear anything particularly hateful, which was a good sign. The people outside were not so different from her after all, in the end, everyone just wants to live.

She was now back, sitting with Eran, at his kitchen table, drinking some of his grandma’s coffee.

“-How did you like it? -”, he asked while looking at her behind his coffee mug.

“-I want to do it again-”, she replied with absolute honesty. She wanted to see more of the world, even if it was by remoting into one auditorium at a time.

“-I was hoping you would say that-”, he smiled. “-Let’s go for a walk, there is someone who wants to say hello to you-”.

“-Someone from the outside? -”, it had to be, unless they had started creating new brains, something they had already decided not to do for the time being.

“-Yes, someone who wants to show you a little invention that may make it easier for you out there-”. Now, he had managed to pique her interest.

Walking between the endless lines of coffee plants outside of Eran’s childhood home, they reached a clearing where a dark-haired man in his forties attentively examined a ripe coffee bean in his hand, he ended up biting it and smiling at the sweetness of it. He turned around the moment he heard their footsteps. It was David Yuen.

Continue to next chapter…