[Photo Credit: Beth Rakouskas, courtesy of Arthur W. Toga, USC Laboratory of Neuro Imaging]
A spacious brightly lit auditorium. A few dozen people, most of them young, fill the rows closest to the black round platform, about one feet high, at the center of the amphitheater. The platform is empty. Next to it a man and a woman sit on chairs behind a small desk. The woman is holding a gadget that looks like a TV remote control. The man begins speaking:
“Let’s get started folks. Are you ready to meet Eric tonight?”
Somebody shouts from the first row: “Yes! Bring him out!”
“Good,” the man says, “By the way, I’m Mark, and here’s my assistant, Angela.”
The same voice from the first row: “Go ahead, Mark. We know who you are.”
Mark: All right then. Angela?
She nods and points the gadget in her hand towards the platform — immediately a man appears at its center. He is tall, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His age is uncertain.
Angela: Hello Eric.
Very slowly the man on the platform turns to face her.
Eric: Who are you, ma’am?
Angela: I’m Angela. I’ve joined the project recently, years after your… I mean…
Eric: After I ceased to exist as a biological entity. That’s all right, Angela, no problem.
Angela: Mark, the head of the project, is also here. You should remember Mark, he was your postgraduate student.
Eric: Hi Mark, how are you doing?
Mark: Hello Eric, glad to talk to you again. We’ve got an audience over here.
Eric: What audience? Where are we now?
Mark: In our university science building auditorium filled with students and some faculty members. We’d like to chat with you tonight if you don’t mind.
Eric: I have an unlimited supply of time. One of the advantages of augmented eternity.
Mark: What are the other advantages?
Eric: Clarity of thinking, for instance. Logic not distorted by passions, judgment not influenced by emotions.
Angela: But passions can be productive. They can set off thinking process.
Eric: They may, occasionally. But as a rule they smother it.
Mark: We’ll come back to this later… Eric, could you tell the audience what you think about the recent progress in our field? After all, you were — well, you are — one of its leading figures.
Eric: The progress is astonishing. When we started the goal was to convert knowledge, way of thinking, opinions, and other mental traits of an individual into digital form — in other words to transfer intellectual properties to a virtual entity that not only survives our physical demise but continues to learn, continues to evolve as new information is fed into it. And this goal was achieved amazingly fast — we were able to preserve all those qualities of a person in a database and create a computer program to interact with it. I believe you are utilizing this program right now, correct?
Mark: An updated version, to be precise.
Eric: The idea that our thoughts will live on after our bodies crumble into dust is not a new one. Art and literature served this purpose for millennia, connecting an author with readers or spectators. Or listeners, in the case of music. However those are not fully interactive forms.
Mark: Of course.
Eric: Returning to our project, even in its last stages no one expected — I’m talking about professionals, not sci-fi types — that the program could eventually evolve toward acquiring self-awareness.
Mark: A few people thought such a possibility should not be completely dismissed, but you weren’t among them, Eric.
Eric: If our current conversation isn’t just my illusion I must admit: I was dead wrong back then.
Angela: But even if it is an illusion — so what? To have illusions one has to be conscious!
Eric: That sounds convincing, Angela. I feel better now.
Mark: The thing is, Eric, you are living proof — metaphorically speaking — that mind can be successfully divorced from the brain and function independently.
Eric: Descartes’ formula “cogito ergo sum” is still valid but the notion of “sum” has to be redefined.
Mark: How would you describe it based on your current experience?
Eric: First of all, existence doesn’t necessarily require being alive. At its core to exist means to be aware of one’s own existence and, by extension, the existence of the outside world.
Angela: Isn’t it the other way round? I mean, doesn’t perception of the world come first?
Eric: This is the old dispute, perception versus projection. I wouldn’t dwell on it.
Mark: As we know, Gilbert Ryle and his followers argued that the Cartesian concept of mind-body dualism is a categorical mistake. He famously coined the expression “the Ghost in the Machine”. Do you feel like a ghost?
Eric: Rather like a machine.
Mark: Many of us feel that way at times.
Angela: So the program became self-aware — but how?
Eric: The same way as living creatures, I suppose. Self-consciousness wasn’t Nature’s goal. It emerged accidentally but natural selection obviously found it useful. Evolution isn’t clever, just practical.
Mark: It has been shown, based on the work of von Neumann, that a complex system, that is, a system comprised of billions elements, could be capable of self-replication.
Eric: But no predictions and no calculations were made on how complex a system must be to become self-conscious.
Mark (after a pause): I wonder why our audience is so quiet tonight.
Angela quickly presses a button on her gadget — immediately noise fills the room, as if several people were talking at the same time. Then a woman in the second row, wearing a uniform of gray pants and a navy blue short with a logo and the word “Research” imprinted on it, raises her hand and speaks.
The woman in uniform: Most religions share a belief that the soul survives death. In modernity a number of books has been written about life-after-death experience. Do you have an opinion on that?
Eric: Make no mistake ma’am. What you see on stage right now is my hologram, what you hear is my synthesized voice, and what answers your question is a computer program. Okay?
The woman in uniform: Are you suggesting that there is nothing beyond the informational field and we are just a collection of behavioral patterns?
Eric: All I’m saying is to the best of my knowledge there is no digital version of Heaven.
The woman in uniform: Fair enough, thank you.
The same man that had the exchange with Mark in the beginning stands up. We now see he is wearing the same uniform as the woman that just spoke.
The man in uniform: Were you surprised when you recognized that you’d regained your consciousness?
Eric: Were you surprised when you became conscious as a small child?
The man in uniform: I don’t remember. It was a long time ago. And you know what, we’ve all read Jung, at least The portable Jung: there is no certainty on how conscience arises in a child.
Eric: Were you surprised about regaining your feeling of self when you awoke this morning?
The man in uniform: I was surprised that my wife wasn’t next to me in our bed…
Angela: O, no!
The man in uniform: But then I recalled she had to leave our house early to catch a train for her business trip.
Eric: In my case I don’t expect to find my wife sleeping next to me in a bed. Nor do I expect myself waking up in a bed. No surprises of any sort, in fact.
The man in uniform: You didn’t answer my question, professor. But I see your point. Thanks.
A bearded man sitting apart from the rest of the spectators begins speaking.
A bearded man (Robert): I am not sure who I should address my question to, Eric or Mark, but here it is: suppose we are capable, as you claim, of transferring the content of an individual’s consciousness into some vast database — but how about the other, unconscious part of human psyche? Could it be encoded and transferred as well?
Eric: Will you take this one, Mark?
Mark: Yes. You know, Robert, we don’t attempt to replicate the brain architecture or digitize processes happening inside the mind. Instead, using a special machine, a simulator, we subject a person to a variety of events requiring complex responses. A computer analyzes the data and creates an input/output function. The test should be repeated periodically. Thus several charts are produced. The next step is — merging them into a stable and reliable composite chart.
Robert: Which allows us to predict an individual’s responses to a wide range of real life situations, correct?
Eric: That’s right. And of course the chart must be corrected if real life responses deviate substantially from the predicted — up to a certain point.
Mark: Now, Robert, coming back to your question about encoding the Unconscious. Of course this portion of personality cannot be grasped cognitively. But In a sense it is incorporated in the data. In particular, the charts of folks who came from remarkably different backgrounds reveal similarities and correlations that could be interpreted as a manifestation of Jungian “collective unconscious”, if you will. But this angle of research is clearly beyond the scope of our project.
Robert: I see. No messy identity issues, no suppressed memories, no dreams… You don’t have dreams, Eric, do you?
Eric: Dreams? Not lately. Or should I say: not yet? It’s not like I am missing them — I have something instead: glitches and bugs.
Robert: Fantastic! Thank you both, Eric and Mark.
A few moments later Robert gets up, walks quietly to a side door of the auditorium and, unnoticed, exits the room.
Angela: I’d like to touch on a sensitive subject, Eric.
Eric: Go ahead, I’ve grown quite a thick skin lately.
Angela: It’s about suffering. I’m sure you know what suffering is. But do you experience suffering postmortem? Oops, I misspoke! I meant to say “posthumously”. I am so sorry!
Eric: Yes, I do. But it is different from what you feel when you have a headache, or when your lover leaves you. It’s more like working on a Sudoku puzzle and getting stuck midway.
Angela: Oh, I could live with that sort of suffering!
Mark: Right… Eric, maybe you will tell us what advantages augmented eternity offers in addition to those you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation.
Eric: Certainly, Mark. Are you afraid of dying?
Mark: Of course I am!
Eric: See, I am not. As a matter of fact I’m not afraid of anything. A huge gain, isn’t it?
Angela: But you remember how it feels to be afraid.
Eric: I know I had fears before — not anymore. Can’t figure out why I had them in the first place.
Angela: Aren’t the fears just a defense mechanism against life’s dangers?
Eric: There is a difference between being alert and being besieged by fears. The former is necessary for species survival. The latter is a sign of a damaged connection to reality.
Mark: Do you think, Eric, you have a better connection to reality now?
Eric: I detect a hint of sarcasm in your voice, Mark. Let me clarify. If one’s connection to reality is damaged, nervous break-downs and panic attacks could occur. It doesn’t happen when the connection is healthy or when there is no connection at all. Trees and wild animals never become paranoid. Computer programs never become suicidal.
Mark: I wouldn’t say “never” about the programs. We just don’t know.
Eric: Well, I have some insight into that.
Mark: Me too.
Eric (slowly turning toward him): Mark??
Suddenly somebody from the audience begins speaking in a loud voice; it’s not clear who is speaking.
The Loud Voice: Excuse me professor, are you aware of some AEC members’ recent unsolicited public appearances?
Eric: I learned about a single episode. Are you saying there has been more than one? That would validate my reservations about the Augmented Eternity Club objectives and my reluctance to getting involved in the Club’s activities. Being a mathematician…
The Loud Voice (interrupting): A few of your colleagues do participate in AEC’s Parallel Network.
Eric: In my opinion that is wasting dead people’s time.
The Loud Voice: You said early on that time isn’t a factor here, correct?
Eric: Even an unlimited resource can be squandered!
Angela (with a smile): I wouldn’t argue with that.
Mark: I heard these appearances — we call them “resurrections” — were orchestrated by trolls who infiltrated the Parallel Network.
The Loud Voice: Nonsense! We know who is spreading these rumors. And we know why.
Angela: Look, you cannot deny the fact that several new-fangled computer viruses have emerged out of the blue targeting people like Eric, making them ill.
The Loud Voice: Come on Angela. That’s a totally different story!
Eric is trying to say something but Mark interrupts.
Mark: There are plenty of exciting ideas we’d love to explore but I believe the time for this session has almost run out, so I would suggest we continue these discussions sometime next week. Any objections?
Mark (after a pause): Very good, thank you all. Angela, please make the necessary arrangements for the next session.
Angela: I certainly will. And now…
She presses a button on her gadget — instantly the platform becomes empty. She stands up, points the gadget towards the audience and makes a wide fluid motion — the audience disappears, except for the man and woman in uniform. Those two begin moving towards Angela. Mark walks to the platform and steps onto it. Angela aims her device on him, pretending to press the button. The uniformed couple comes close, laughing. Mark shakes his head as if in disbelief.
Mark: Poor Eric, he has no clue…
Boris Kokotov was born in Moscow, Russia. Currently he lives in Baltimore. He writes poems and short stories in Russian and English languages. He is the author of several poetry collections. He also translated selected poems of German Romantics and contemporary American poets to Russian language. His work appeared in periodicals, most recently in Allegro, The Bewildering Stories, Boston Poetry Magazine, Constellations, Chiron Review, and The Lake.