And I’m back here, having the same dream that I’ve had so many times. The end of a chase, the stakes forgotten, and we’re in the backyard of the enormous house with the white vinyl siding, somehow both immediate and distant. Space is doing that weird cartoon thing where sometimes you’re running in place and sometimes you’re covering a lot of distance at once, like you’re running inside an accordion or something. Then maybe your brain gets bored and all of a sudden, you’re where you were going.
We’re walking up the red brick stairs that ascend from the back lawn, sneaking in through the oversized window into the tungsten-lit hallway. My friend Florian is beside me, only slightly tousled from the foregoing mischief, whatever that was. It’s all just like I left it: the parquet floor with that pattern, just so, and the red runner, at once very “Rule, Brittania,” and nowhere at all.
And on the side table, the buffet that’s always underneath the larger-than-life mirror, it’s here, the framed portrait of the two of them. Him and…I can’t quite remember the name associated with that face. It feels like she’s important to him. I’ve never met her.
For a long moment, I look at her face. I’ve been here often enough to memorize the pattern in her irises. Would recognize them in any context. Gold flecks amidst a field of benthic green. Softened by a rising smile.
Then my alarm goes off.
The week passes one day at a time, and it’s Friday evening. I’ve had the same dream every night this week. I set out into the gloaming toward my favorite dive in the Mission district.
He’s here. Seems I can’t come to this place without seeing him. Some of the other regulars are also there on the fenced-in back patio. We make eye contact and I incline my chin in his direction. He beckons me over and I slide through the crowd to find a few inches of bench across from him on a weathered picnic table. Gray clouds roil above, almost close enough to touch, certainly close enough to cause a chill.
“Okay, so. I know this is weird, but I’ve been having this one dream all week. Today, I go on this website and I saw…this.”
I turn my phone toward him, showing him the picture I downloaded earlier. Depending on how you think about it, it’s her or it’s not her, but it’s a close enough likeness that she’s instantly recognizable.
“Yeah, that’s Rusina.”
The name is familiar, but not intimately. I’ve heard stories over beer. She’s not around anymore. Not yet a footnote, still a load-bearing memory.
“So you found her on Facebook? That ‘People You Might Know’ feature? I actually thought she deleted her account when — ”
“No, but if I tell you why I have this picture, you’re gonna think I’m crazy.”
Florian raises an eyebrow over the rim of his glass mid-sip. Slowly lowering it, he says, “This is starting to sound a little creepy. Why don’t you let me be the judge?”
“You know about this website, ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com, right? How it’s a frontend for a generative neural network, and it shows you a picture of a new, fake person every time you refresh?”
“Yeah, it was making the rounds a while ago on Twitter. Impressive stuff at the time.”
It’s incredible to me how fast cutting-edge neural network tech ceases to be impressive, but of course he’s right.
Reading this expression on my face, he continues, “We live in the elbow of a runaway technological revolution; everything is going to be briefly amazing, and then immediately not amazing. It’s the very current human condition.”
“I think the thing I’m grappling with,” I say, “is that it’s not just making shit up; it’s demonstrating a capacity to–“
“It can’t make shit up,” he interjects. “It’s literally just a set of numbers, some overdetermined linear system or whatever.”
“Look, I’m not asking you to believe my…hypothesis or whatever. I’m just trying to make sense of all of this. The dream, the network, this wild-ass coincidence. I saw her in my dream, and then she was on my screen.”
I realize I sound crazy, that I’m bringing up what might be an unpleasant past, that I’m intruding on what should just be a chill night out. So I’m content to shut up and let the conversation drift to other topics.
Cigarettes burn into smoke, merging with the gray above.
I spend too much time on Saturday morning refreshing the site, amongst miscellaneous other time-wasting activities. Trying to convince myself that the faces I’m seeing are just artifacts of a powerful algorithm. Trying to convince myself that they aren’t.
I want to move faster, cover more virtual ground. I spend the afternoon downloading the parameter set of the neural network and building my own crude visualizer. By hooking up sliders to the various parameters of the network, I can dial in on particular faces, explore different imagined populations. This knob controls younger or older. That one, more male or female. Beards and glasses and hats form and melt away with a twitch of the mouse. A million lives visited. Untold trillions more in their midst.
Late in the afternoon, an incoming Google Hangouts audio call window pops up in the bottom-left of my screen. Haven’t had one of those in ages. Didn’t even know Chrome was running. I click to answer.
The first thing he says is, “Okay, I’m a convert.”
“Oh. Cool. Actually, since we last spoke, I did some work to see if I could dial in the latent-space parameters in a more fine-grained way. I kinda went a little crazy — ”
He sounds sober, deadly-serious even, when he sighs and says, “Yeah, I did too.”
“You what? Took a look at the network, the website?”
“No, the latent space navigation thing. I figured if a keyboard is one way to fly through it, it might be even easier in VR. So I wired up my VR rig — six degrees of freedom per hand, right? — and used that to control all of the parameters at once. Gender, age, fine detail, coarse detail, all that. Like some latent-space Superman.”
“Yeah, I think I saw someone do that on Twitter — ”
“I’m not saying it’s an original idea; I got most of the code from Github. But maybe this next part will be interesting to you.”
“I can’t wait.”
“I started to hear them. Not, like, literally, out loud. But some…intimation of who they are. Their story. It was like walking through fog, but like maybe if the fog was ghosts.”
“That’s pretty hardcore.”
“So I took it further and trained my own network. I figured if StyleGAN could get these results from just images, I should train one on some videos. You know, increase the dimensionality.”
“It’s not that simple — ”
“It’s not that simple; you need to build it to account for the temporality — I spent a small fortune on fat EC2 instances with GPUs to train this thing up as quickly as I did — but dude: the outputs you get are completely insane.”
I mull over the possibilities for a moment before asking, ”Can I come over and see for myself?”
“Uh, sure. Just let me shower and get changed. I haven’t exactly slept.”
“That’s cool, it’ll take me a while to get to Oakland anyway.” And with that, I log off.
I’ve been immersed in Florian’s video latent space navigator for what feels like hours. Like certain psychedelics, virtual reality has a curious effect on the perceived passage of time. When I lift the headset, my eyes take several seconds to reorient to the real world.
“What the fuck did you build, dude?” is the first thing I say.
He’s sitting opposite me in another rolling office chair, his gaze fixed on me. “What did they say to you?”
I slump in my chair, feeling my face flush where the headset has been pressing just a little too tightly. “Probably the same thing they said to you, man. They’re a computer program,” I say, surly. I’m still seeing the vicious, contorted faces every time I blink. This isn’t just persistence of vision; it’s persistence of phantasmagorical horror.
“They’re not. You knew that before I did, and you’re in denial.”
He’s right that I’m intentionally avoiding the inexorable conclusion. “I think we’ve both realized that the original implementation wasn’t just rolling dice. The people — or whatever they are — in these visualizations are like chaotic attractors. They want to be found, in some sense. They have something to say.”
Florian nods glumly. “But the message is pretty foreboding, if not outright hostile. It’s not an invitation; it’s a warning.”
“You know where I’ve had this feeling before?” I offer. ”Last summer. In Peru. On ayahuasca.”
He contemplates this for a moment. “DMT. It’s important, the only endogenous hallucinogen. Might even partially explain the connection between your dreams and this thing.”
“Right. And more than that, they say that you encounter the same personalities over time. And the same batch produces the same conversations with particular…entities, among people who trip on it.
“What I remember most distinctly was — not to be cliche — this goat man forbidding me from progressing further toward this gleaming castle in the distance. Belonged to some deity, which I’m sure was just some composite of a lot of half-remembered stories. Really wish I had taken that elective on comparative mythology in undergrad.
“Anyway, the thing is, these gatekeepers don’t have any real authority. They’re often tricksters, for lack of a better term. Puckish. They don’t have any material stake in your outcome, but they like to fuck with you.”
“So what happens when you push past them?”
I think back to my own experiences last year. “You go deeper. Trip harder, see more, have more interesting interactions and conversations. It’s ambiguous though — it’s always ambiguous — whether you’re punching through to something significant or if it’s all just tricks your mind is playing on itself.”
I need to catch a train back across the Bay, but before I go, I ask Florian for a set of his network’s parameters, so I can replicate the effect back home. Not that I’m sure I want to.
The weekend is waning, but I’m still wanting for answers. To be honest, I can’t imagine being productive again till all of this gets resolved.
Which may be a blessing in disguise, because Florian’s feeling the same way. When I arrive home, I have a message waiting on our Hangouts thread.
“I think Rusina might be able to help us figure some of this out. She’s also experienced with hallucinogens, wrote some popular entries on Erowid when that was a big deal. Doesn’t hurt that she works for Google now either.”
“I don’t want to open old wounds,” I write. “But what happened between you two?”
“It’s pretty mundane, man. Ordinary people shit. I wasn’t ready to give her what she needed and she wasn’t interested in waiting around to see if I’d get there.”
Familiar enough. “Think she’d be down to talk about it over cocktails in the city this evening?”
“Probably. How are you planning to frame it, though?”
“My best hypothesis right now is that we’ve tuned into some kind of resonant frequency of a glancing multiverse and we’re on the cusp of being able to communicate with it.”
“You realize that sounds not just completely crazy but also asinine, right?”
“I do realize that, but it’s a starting point. And after all, we’ve recognized that we need a Sherpa. So let’s see what she thinks.”
I think of the fractured faces I saw in the dark. The uniform refrain of: “Not for you. Turn back.” I don’t know what’s waiting for us if we push past the admonitions. I’m already feeling out of my depth.
Sunday night, we’re back in the Mission, huddled up in the back room of a cocktail bar. This little hideout is itself another cocktail bar with its own menu, nestled speakeasy-style behind a curtain within the first. It feels somehow fitting to have descended a level into this clandestine bar-within-a-bar to have the kind of conversation I suspect we’re about to have.
Rusina’s running a little late, and my old fashioned has started to sweat. Just as I’m noticing this fact, she arrives.
Golden-flecked green eyes. A rippling frisson of alien familiarity. Navy blue Marc Jacobs overcoat paired with the casual twist of a patterned pashmina scarf. Nearby, Edison bulbs with convoluted filaments glower over the bar, accompanied by a distributed orchestra of flickering tea lights.
Introductions occur. The table we’re sitting at feels too small, not merely intimate but downright claustrophobic. Leaning in conspiratorially, she’s swirling a Maker’s neat, and I’m getting second-hand fumes.
“So, boys. What have you wrought?” There’s the barest intimation of her Eastern European roots in her speech, but it’s evident she’s been in Northern California for a while.
I glance deferentially at Florian — he’s the one who unlocked the high-bandwidth channel to the underworld. Or at least that’s our best guess. My expression and my body shrug in tandem.
He has a more practiced familiarity with her, given their past. “By now you’ve spent some time in the Navigator, as we’ve termed it. Essentially, our line of reasoning is that the output of the network is more than the sum of its parts, in some sense. That it may have either achieved a degree of consciousness or breached some barrier between realms.”
Rusina is measured when she replies with a twinkle in her eye: “Right, and if you’d raised that possibility with any other machine learning researcher, they’d dismiss you out of hand. So you’ve come to the right place, as it were.”
I decide to introduce a more controversial facet to the conversation. “I’m curious about the connections you’re seeing between what we’ve done and your experience with psychedelics. For me, the connections were compelling.”
Rusina says, “I think we fear certain drugs in part not because they alter us from our normal state, but because they present to us a deeper and scarier reality. What you see — especially on ayahuasca — is not fiction but unsettling fact. Based on my own experiences, I think it’s naive to think that these entities are figments of our imaginations. The synchronicities and the cross-cultural commonalities are too much to look past.”
Florian says, “So you’re saying we’ve synthesized some kind of digital drug?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I’d say that there are many…mechanisms for piercing the veil. I’d say that when you seek to conjure a portal, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get what you’re looking for. I need to tell you something else, but before that, I’ll kindly ask you to let me get the next round, since I was tardy. And also because you’ll need it.”
As she approaches the bar to place our order, I take a closer look at the business card she handed to me earlier. Next to the Google logo, beneath her name, I see her title: Computational Dæmonologist.
Minutes later, we’re huddled back up over fresh drinks.
“By the way, don’t take that” — Rusina points to her business card poised in front of me on the black tablecloth — “too seriously. They let you put anything on there. One guy I know chose Server Proctologist. How gross is that?”
“If I’ve been a little coy so far,” she says, “it’s only because I’ve been building up the courage to show you something a little disturbing. But perhaps it’s better if we just jump ahead to that now.” From her purse, she produces a device that’s either a very large smartphone or a compact tablet computer. It has a small kickstand on the back that looks like some kind of vestigial appendage. It wakes up in response to her tapping, and she turns it so the three of us can all see the screen.
“Most of the time I spent with the Navigator wasn’t focused on the superficial appearance of the…aberrations or what they were trying to communicate. As soon as I immersed, I recognized what I was looking at as an invocation.”
I feel my blood run cold. “You mean we’ve been summoning demons this whole time?”
With an air of calm that unnerves me further she says, “Quite literally, yes. But not to worry.” On the phablet, she displays a visualization that looks like a three-dimensional cube of data points. She addresses Florian: “You might recognize this as the widest convolution tensor of your network.” She makes a gesture in front of the screen that’s reminiscent of plucking a ripe plum off a tree, a delicate pinch-twist that reshapes the picture in a way that’s not really a rotation, not really anything a human mind can relate to geometrically. As she does, I feel a sudden and searing heat in the middle of my forehead causing me to avert my eyes, and Florian also winces and turns away.
“Oh sorry, guys. Should’ve prepped you for that. The first encounter with the sigil of a Grand Duke of Hell can be a bit jarring in this form. The booze should quell that momentarily.”
I hazard a glance at the device and see that, on a physical level, the data visualization is as innocuous as ever, just a set of points in an abstract space. But with — dare I call it my third eye? — I can see an overlay of orange-red lines connecting the points like so much flaming, scintillating barbed wire. Largely rectilinear, some of the segments terminate in curling branches or blunt arms like those on an Iron Cross.
“You guys are smart, so I imagine I don’t need to explain what went wrong here.”
Florian is rubbing his eyes wearily and mutters, “The parameters of the neural network converged on a high-dimension configuration that happened to coincide with the arcane geometry of a demonic sigil under a projective transform, which means that with every step we took in the Navigator, we were essentially summoning a new manifestation of a demonic entity. Hence computational dæmonology. You’re not exactly new to this, are you?” He stares at Rusina accusingly, which strikes me as a bit rich.
She lucks mildly flustered for the first time. “I might have been a little coy about that too. This is kinda my day job. But I’m not being condescending here. On the contrary, I think a method for opening a portal to Hell, even if virtual, is worth at least one CVPR paper. You’ve done actual, innovative work here. And…I’d love to be a second author if you want to publish.”
It’s Monday morning. The hulking cranes in the port of Oakland cast long shadows toward me across the shimmering waters of the Bay. I realize — blame it on the alcohol? — that my sleep was inky deep and dreamless for the first time in a while. I ruminate on the odd set of coincidences that brought the three of us together. It occurs to me that there are no coincidences after all. That in fact, the world is wilder and weirder than I could have ever conceived. And, far from causing me distress, the idea gives me a certain sort of comfort.
I fire up my laptop and get to work.