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A Short Story

posted Jul 23, 2013, 1:07 PM by Kyle Buchanan

The math department of our local university had been a veritable hotbed of excitement since the initiation of the enigmatic "Project" eighteen years ago. Though, "excitement" for a math department rated right around a 9 or 10 on the boredom-meter for the average person, which was probably why I was the first journalist in those nearly two decades to bother doing a story about it. This hadn't even been my choice, really, but it was a slow news week and my editor had insisted.


It was one of those cool late-summer mornings, before the sun burns the dew off the grass and the temperature climbs back into the low thirties and the bird songs are replaced by cicadas. Mist was still rising off the landscaped pond in front of the ivy-covered angular concrete building that served as headquarters for the incomprehensible-to-non-specialists and surely-of-no-interest-at-all-to-the-layman Project. I finished my bagel and coffee in the car before going inside for my interview with one of the coordinating directors.


"Professor Green? Phil Davidson, from the Weekly Tribune. Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking the hand of a professionally-dressed woman in her fifties.


"Ah yes, of course. Please come into my office. We're glad to get a chance to finally see you in person."


I took stock of the office as she led me inside. Functional wooden desk with a laptop and tablet and a small mess of papers; bookshelf full of various reference texts, none of which I would probably understand past the preface, two whiteboards covered in sequences of symbols that might have been mathematical or might have been ancient cuneiform; orange couch that must have been time-warped straight out of some 1970s corporate lounge; three scrawny houseplants sitting on top of the radiator under the window.


Professor Green sat down at her desk and motioned to a small plastic chair in front of it. "Please, have a seat. We've got a lot to discuss."


I sat down, and pulled my notepad and voice recorder out of my bag. "Do you mind?" I asked, holding up the recorder.


"Not at all; go right ahead."


I turned on the little device and sat it on the desk.


"Now, you're probably wondering why you are here, and what the story could possibly be," said Green.


"Well, yes, to be frank. I took a couple of semesters of linear algebra and calculus back in college, before I switched to journalism. I guess that probably means I have the most relevant knowledge of any of my coworkers but I don't know if it's going to help me here. I don't recognize any of that, not even the symbols," I replied, waving my hand at the whiteboards.


"Actually, we requested you specifically. We've finished the first phase of our project."


I raised my eyebrow at that.


"Alright, let me see if I can explain what we've been doing here," Green continued. "We've been making amazing strides in pure and applied math since the beginning. To be honest, even a top mathematician probably wouldn't understand those equations unless they've been working here or following our publications very closely, so you shouldn't feel too bad. The project so far has generated nearly 500 Ph.D.s, four Fields medals, and we're on track to have at least two Nobels. Assuming you did your homework before coming here, you probably know that the philosophy department has almost completely been absorbed into the project, and we've been stealing people from neuroscience, physics, and CS for years."


She paused to take a drink of water, and I looked up from my notebook. "Sorry, I'm still not clear on what this has to do with me in particular."


The professor carefully set the glass down on a bare patch of desk and smiled at me. "Ah, we're coming to that. You have heard of the attempts made by various organizations to simulate a human brain? Former president Obama initiated such a plan, as did the E.U., and IBM had their Blue Brain."


"Let's see: Folded into a pre-existing military program for enhanced drone awareness; funding got cut; retasked for running network efficiency optimizers," I answered, ticking them off on my fingers.


"More or less. What we decided to do was pick up where they left off, and then go further than they had even planned." Suddenly she got a worried look on her face. "Oh, I guess I should ask now; you aren't a dualist, are you?"


"As in, do I believe there's some... supernatural component of a conscious mind; like a soul or something? No, I'd say not. I'm on board with the idea that you could simulate a brain on a computer, anyway."


"Oh good. Anyway, about six years ago, we managed to do it. We didn't actually run the simulation due to, well, ethical concerns, but the program was set up and we had all the data we needed, and we could have turned it on with the click of a button if we had wanted."


My eyes widened a bit at this revelation. Now that was news. Big news. Career-making news, even. But why did her mention of six years ring a bell?


"I'm sure you see now where this is going," said Green. "Or perhaps you don't, judging by the look on your face. You don't look nearly as shocked as I imagined."


Then I made the connection. Six years ago I had been scanned in an experimental molecular-scale MRI for a story I was doing on a hospital opening. And that meant - "That simulation... was me? Based on my brain?"


Professor Green just nodded, and my jaw figuratively dropped, while my notebook literally did. I scrambled to pick it up as she started talking again.


"In any case, as I said, the simulation was never run. It was just our preliminary effort; our proof-of-concept if you will. And it was really a crude construct. A model of your brain, running on top of a virtual physics engine, sitting in the memory of a huge and expensive supercomputer. What we wanted to do is really take advantage of the shortcuts afforded by having a mind that for the first time in history had been distilled down to numbers and algorithms. We can work with those. We can simplify them, in a way that simply isn't possible or even conceivable for real biology or physics."


"This is a... a lot to take in," I stammered, "You're saying that you were trying to compress my mind? Like it was a zip file?"


"That's basically it. And you would be amazed how well a mind compresses. Once we began looking at it, the simplifications became almost obvious. It started off as a large and cumbersome program which was the simulation substrate, and the data we had from your brain was a big file of parameters to be fed into that program. What we first managed to do was write equations expressing many of those parameters in terms of the others, and we also pared down the simulator. By about two years ago we had developed an entirely new notation system that's half sets of partial differential equations, half propositional calculus, and half C code. That's what you see on my whiteboards. In fact, what you are specifically seeing there is our final product. That's you. Aren't you proud?" Green was grinning now, "That's the essence of your mind, your consciousness, everything that you are, compacted so efficiently that it can be handwritten in marker on two medium-sized pieces of white plastic. Sure, there's plenty of complexity being hidden by our fancy symbols, but it's still all there."


It took me a few seconds to respond. "My god, this is, well, this is absolutely huge. Half an hour ago I was rolling my eyes at the prospect of having to write some boring piece about math research that would get buried in the back pages of the paper and no one would read it. But now you're telling me that not only can a human mind be fully enumerated by that... that gibberish, but that it's MY mind in particular? And how are religious people going to react to this?" Another thought struck me, then. "If you erase those boards, is it technically murder?"


"And don't forget," said the professor, "this is merely the first part of the project." She now had a full-on mischievous look on her face.


"Well, I can't even imagine where you're going to go from here."


Green got up and walked to the whiteboards to point out different symbols. "Let me just explain these a little bit. This part is a description of the parameters that we had to specifically define. These ones here denote a system of equations; well, it's a bit more complicated than that, but you can picture them as a large array of differentials, most of them being defined implicitly by the others. And this part is essentially an array of variables, though they're more like data structures that can contain different things. And that's pretty much it, the rest specifies how they all interact with each other. If you've done any programming I'm sure you can see the similarities."


I nodded. "And phase 2?"


"Let me ask you a question, Mr. Davidson. How would you like to know your destiny?"


"My what?" I asked, incredulously. "You can't predict the future, not with that. Not with... anything, I thought. No, there's no way."


"Take a look again at the code. Here you've got a system of equations, and here you have a set of variables," said Professor Green, gesturing at the relevant symbols. "It turns out there are the same number of each."


She paused, rather dramatically, and I waited for her to continue.


"It's solvable."

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